Saturday, January 31, 2015

10,000 Steps

I once heard that Honeymoon Island was some form of wader haven. Admittedly this site is only one of two locations in this region of Florida that can boast a species total of 300 species or more, which suggests off the bat it is a good migrant trap as well.
Hotspot map courtesy of eBird.org and Google (maps). Fort de Soto Park is the lower red marker.

Some recent bird reports from the area had also been promising, including several waders that I either had not seen before because of sheer unluckiness or had never been in the range of to begin with. The most notable was the rather petite piping plover, a bird that is also endangered and rather rare.

The first impression of the location was perhaps not the best. What little there was of a beach for waders was packed full of people, despite it being a weekday. Half of the lower beach was closed off with heavy construction vehicles and metal fences, certainly not immediately promising!

I had walked for over an hour before seeing anything but a scattering of gulls, terns, palm warblers and ospreys. No sign of any shorebirds anywhere along this massive stretch of beach. Fortunately there were less and less people the further north I walked but there were still enough seashell collectors passing through to disturb any bird foraging here. After much walking I finally encountered the first shorebird of the day, a single sanderling on the edge of the water. Though a nice looking wader it is not uncommon for hundreds of these white birds packed tightly together on sun-speckled winter sands back in California.

I did see some horseshoe crabs though, albeit dead.


Finally I found something. The next spark of hope, or perhaps shadow of hope, were a pair of well-sized dark birds: American oystercatchers. Finally, a good start to the trip!

They certainly have interesting eyes. Unlike the European species, the eyes are pale yellow and not red.
With the fading presence of people, it was good to start finally seeing birds. Inevitably the first grey shaded willets of the day soon appeared and grew in numbers. A massive congregation of birds were preening at the very end of the spit, and smaller scattered flocks of other waders were found throughout. It seemed that the wader haven I had seen seeking was all squished into this tiny northern tip of the island.

Before I reached the main wader flocks I found some small rather sandy coloured plovers bunched together with sanderling and dunlin. Piping plovers. Success!

Piping plover, with dunlin (foreground).

Piping plovers (above) and 2 dunlin (far left and bottom).
The next mini-flock contained sanderlings and two darker plovers. I wrongly assumed they were semipalmated plover as I thought the bill looked too short for Wilson's plover. As it happens, the bill was far too long for semipalmated, which has a bill length more comparable to the piping plovers earlier. Either bird was new for me, and Wilson's the far better of the two since it has a far more restricted range.

Wilson's plover. The bird on the far left is a sanderling.
With the mini flocks dealt with I had time to go through the larger flock. There was a lot to see! The first half of the flock was mostly gulls and terns:

This section of the flock contains a good 6 species of birds: the three waders at the back are willets. The three
gulls in the foreground consist of four ring-billed gulls (yellow legs and pale grey wings) and two laughing
gull (black legs, smudged head, dark grey wings). There are at least three more laughing gulls in the middle of the
terns, look for the dark grey wings and black wing tips with white spots.

The large terns are royal terns. In the bottom left
is a sandwich tern followed by a Forster's tern to the upper right (black stripe through white head, red legs). The small tern just to the left of the center is another Forster's tern, as is the small preening tern on the right.

The second half was mostly shorebirds, which was more quantity rather than quality:

Nearly all the birds in this picture are willets (grey, white rump patch) with the exception of the two Forster's terns and the following:

the two brown birds in the center and right-center with the intricate markings are marbled godwits. The small bird on the ground between them, and the darker yellow-legged bird to the far right (it's standing on one leg), are short-billed dowitchers.
The bird with the black and white wing outstretched (left of center) is a willet. These wings markings make these
otherwise nondescript waders quite attractive in flight.
Finishing off this rather bird-packed area was another flock on the eastern side, made of turnstones and a few least sandpipers. It is interesting how the smaller sandpipers will habitually congregate with turnstones but not often with other waders. Perhaps it is because their foraging style is similar.

Turnstone (left) and least sandpiper.
Least sandpiper strutting around the sandy dunes.
Nearby one of the Forster's terns was trying to start arguments. Not sure why. 
Perhaps it was some territorialism that came with the imminency of breeding plumage.
It was a long 3 mile walk back but definitely worth the walk. I wonder how many more birds would be around if there were less people in general? It seems like such a promising place, too bad the main birding area is not accessible by car. Good exercise I suppose.

In the car park was a unusually tame common ground-dove. These tiny doves are generally very hard to approach.



I'd also like to point out this bizarre moth.
A moth: Melanochroia chephise
And did I mention that ospreys are everywhere?





Thursday, January 29, 2015

Chinsegut

Before I take this blog post to its intended destination I will start off by adding a section about Chinsegut Wildlife Center. We found out about this center literally by opening up a map and pointing at it. There was the fear that it was one of those children's education places rather than a real park with content to admire, but it was a good decision. It turned out to be one of the best but overlooked birding areas in the county.

One of the common inhabitants is the red-headed woodpecker, a bird which is quite rare elsewhere in this part of Florida. Other than their appearance at feeders, they are usually invisible and shy, so this at-feeder photograph is the best I have at the moment:


This wooded location also boasts all other Florida woodpeckers except red-cockaded, including the sizeable pileated woodpecker. Pileated is an elusive and skittish species whose laughing call carries far and wide, penetrating an often silent wilderness. Often a single bird is echoed by other in the immediate vicinity, but they are generally uncommon and spread out over large portions of woodland. Naturally it is generally heard far more often than it is seen, the best chances of seeing these birds is hearing one and having the luck to be beside it. Since the presumed loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated has now become the largest living species of woodpecker on the continent. And big they are! Far larger than any other American woodpecker, they are quite striking birds if you get a good look at them.


The giant woodpecker comes to light: exceptional views of this secretive shade-loving woodpecker.
In other notes, a bird I've yet to get good photos of is the "yellow" palm warbler. Palm warblers are probably the most abundant bird in Florida during winter, but most of them are the brown "western" subspecies and they turn up everywhere. The yellow palm warbler or "eastern" palm warbler is less common. Whenever I include a yellow palm warbler in my bird sightings ebird gives me the flashing green "RARE Are you sure?" notification. They certainly aren't that rare though, I tend to see at least one in any well-sized palm warbler flock. In some cases nearly half a flock can be yellows. Unfortunately they are very quick to leave the scene and certainly don't stay around long. Too bad.

A passable photo of a "yellow" palm warbler at Chinsegut. Some birds are nearly this yellow, but they are most likely hybrids between the two subspecies. Perhaps next time I'll manage to change my camera settings before it takes off.
Another winter visitor to Florida is the grey catbird. This skulky bird is named for its raucous call that does not exactly pass as a cat, but I guess I can see where they were coming from. I mention this bird as on this particular visit I had my first actual views of this species when I flushed one while walking past a bush. I was half expecting my first views to be part of a tail or such but in the apparent consternation of being spotted this one seemed to forget that it was meant to be a secretive and invisible bird:



I'd also like to offer a mention to the white-eyed vireo. This species is rarely common anywhere, but in Florida we are lucky enough to have this bird resident all year round. I had my first encounter with the species while getting to grips with its songs and calls on my iPhone during a quiet section of the forest. During one of these playbacks I heard wings in a bush beside me. I raised an eye to this new shadow and there it was! I purposefully had the sound on low to avoid disturbance, but it seems I underestimated avian hearing. The bird had come from well across the forest to seek the mystery intruder.

The pale eye is unique to this particular vireo, at least in America. 

"Now where did that sound come from?"
"Must be here somewhere."
Keeping up with the skulky and pale-eyed theme is the eastern towhee. A cousin to the abundant spotted towhee in California, the unspotted eastern towhee shares the same leaf-kicking behaviour. They don't seem to be as diverse in vocals as spotted towhee, instead they tend to monotonously use the same calls over and over, but an otherwise "nostalgic" bird.

Eastern towhees lurk in shady areas and hedgerows, kicking up leaf litter as they go. They are not usually that flighty, but generally not tame either.

Eastern towhee sneaking around.
This species was once called the rufous-sided towhee when it was merged with the spotted towhee.
Finishing up the skulking theme is the thrush-like warbler named for a nest that it builds on the forest floor. This odd warbler hardly looks like a warbler and is certainly quite different to other members of the family. Unlike the towhee this bird bolts at the slightest sound and often hides in deep cover which makes it rather frustrating to get a good look at. This all assumes you even see the bird dart away to begin with, you are far more likely to walk past it. I now present: the ovenbird.



The final highlight of the day was this stunning yellow-throated warbler that hopped around the windows of the visitor center.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hernando County Bounty

Since visiting Florida it has been a bit overwhelming with all the new species. For everything I see in the west there is often an eastern equivalent, which means despite the fact I'm still in the same country I'm almost starting from scratch!

To start this post off I'm going to show off a colourful garden bird common in eastern North America. This bird is superficially similar to all other typical members of its kind and certainly doesn't win awards for taking risks with its plumage choice. Though it may share the same red-black-white colouration of virtually all north hemispherean members of its family, it is still unique. Here is the red-bellied woodpecker:



This rather fantastic looking bird is quite common in the right places here in Florida, and possibly also one of the loudest and raucous woodpeckers I've encountered. Though perhaps this is because it is quite a sociable woodpecker who is often accompanied by several others of its kind. Unlike other woodpeckers, it knows how to show off that stylish red hair. Unfortunately those who named it were so jealous of this amazing hairstyle that they named it after something far less conspicuous; the slight pinkish tint on the underparts of many (but not all) individuals:


Another topic worth mentioning is the crazy amount of ospreys in Florida.  I remember my first osprey in Wales, it was a tiny (but fantastic) dot through the world's longest telescope at a "secret" location. My views of this spectacular bird of prey were changed a little in California when I had seen one flying over the horizon on a particularly good day. Here though, they are just everywhere. I think I've seen more ospreys here than I've seen feral pigeons and starlings combined.

How you see an osprey in Florida. Distance to osprey: less than 10 meters.
How you see an osprey in the UK (through the word's best telescope). Distance to osprey: over 5 miles.
A unique coastal species that is apparently quite common here is the black skimmer with its very peculiar beak. I had distant views of this species in California once, but only once. They are more confiding here, and seemingly more abundant too.



I could not end this post without some insect life, starting with some locally common butterflies.

Long-tailed Skipper
Zebra. A trademark member of tropical butterfly houses, flying here as if it were nothing.
Both sides of gulf fritillary. One of the most vividly coloured butterflies here for sure.
A monarch fighting a queen over flowers in Fort de Soto Park. Interesting that the monarch actually seems to be "kicking" the opponent, not a behaviour I was aware of in butterflies.  I'm sure a good joke could be made here, but I can't think of it.
Fort de Soto Park was probably worth a blog post in itself but I will try and pick out the highlights here. One thing Florida is quite good for is herons and egrets. I think every regular species in North America occurs here, which is a significant 13. Florida is certainly a good place to be for a heron, as there is water everywhere and no lack of fish and aquatic prey.

On one particularly memorable occasion at Fort de Soto Park I was quite literally surrounded by herons. I first watched this little blue heron lurking in mangrove shadows:

Ridiculously tame.
A little to the right was a white ibis alongside a fantastic tricolo(u)red heron:

Behind me was this white-phase reddish egret:

On the coastline down the beach was a little egret. And in the trees far away was a great egret. What a place. Earlier in the trip I spotted an unmistakably bright pink spot on the horizon. Even though it was a few miles away it was undoubtedly a roseate spoonbill. I hope to see one closer eventually.


An extra incentive for Fort de Soto Park was the reported groove-billed ani, one of the most peculiar of cuckoos that occasionally wanders up into the United States, usually in Texas. Unfortunately there was not a lot of information on its whereabouts, with people just saying it was "south of the North Beach car park". I met a few other birders who were equally puzzled on the directions, so after an hour I so I just walked around and hoped it would find me. While surrounded by herons I had heard its squeaky-toy whistle and glimpsed it very briefly on top of a shrub down the path. Nice! I made a bit of a dash to the path on the other side of this hedge and after a good few minutes of waiting turn around and see it just sitting there. For such a supposedly skulky bird it was rather tame.

Note the grooves on the bill as per its name.
A good head on-shot because not many people take (or keep) head-on shots.
 I also managed this comparison image with a lark sparrow too. I didn't realize it at the time but lark sparrow is actually a considerably rarity here as well. I see them all the time in California so I didn't give it a second look!

Credit given to the lark sparrow for finding a new way to make shades of brown look interesting.
I had the time to go find other birders, most of which had given up, and put them on the ani as well. They were well chuffed. Looking back, technically the spot was south(west) of the north car park, but it was hardly useful information on its own...ah well.

And I...don't know where to put this so...have a moth.
A nice moth: Hemeroplanis scopulepes

All in all, you could say it has been a good first week in Florida! I haven't covered even half of what I have seen in this state so far, but perhaps during longer reprises from trips I'll stick some "themed" posts together in the future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Florida early days

As a "western" birder from California, the eastern state of Florida had a lot of potential for interesting bird sightings and nature in general. An odd feature of North America is that many common birds are "split" into eastern and western. Florida gives me a chance to take a break from seeing Brewer's blackbirds with their great-tailed grackle accomplices and instead see rusty blackbirds and boat-tailed grackles.Where I get fed up with trying to distinguish Bewick's wrens and their variable songs in the west, here in the east I get to deal with Carolina wren. And having the satisfaction of finally learning all the nearly identical warbler calls in the west is quite mercilessly snatched away from you as the east tosses a completely new set of eastern warblers to deal with. But that is all the fun of the hobby right!?

A few birds common to the east I once saw in Alberta several years ago. Blue jays, with their rather variable dialect, is the best example. Then there are the 5% of birds which remain indifferent, for instance mockingbirds are just as prevalent and regular here as in the west, it has no plumage differences, sounds no different, and occupies the same (or equivalent) habitat.

The first new bird of the state was a regular garden bird, the northern cardinal.

Unfortunately it sat against the sun, and let's not even talk about the focus.
This cardinal would be last even remotely obliging cardinal I see indefinitely. They are extremely skulky and secretive birds that really don't like to be photographed at all. I caught the above bird singing, so perhaps that is the key. They most often sing in the open.

A visit to Homosassa Springs was the first official outing in Florida. From the car park I watched this soaring anhinga, an odd cousin to the more familiar cormorants:

A little boat ride through some narrow rivers stood between us and Homosassa Springs Park. On the way it seemed few people were interested in these duckweeds. In the UK only one type is common, so it is interesting to see multiple together:

There are 3-4 different leaf types in this image, thus 3-4 different species of duckweeds. How many can you see?
I guess this alligator was kind of interesting as well. But more interesting than 3-4 types of duckweeds!?

*crickets*
But of course you came here for birds, so have this wood duck as consolation:
Lotsa colours.

In the trees surrounding, I picked out a blue-headed vireo. I was trying to turn it into a plumbeous unsuccessfully. Didn't realize blue-headed vireos were so dull in the head. On one of the lakes was this male anhinga:

Great egret top left.

Another prevalent bird in Florida, even more so than in California, was the turkey vulture. However the bird of interest for this paragraph is the related black vulture, a bird that scarcely wanders to California. Here both species are relatively common, with turkey vulture generally being the more abundant of the two. Here though only black vulture seemed to be around, except for singles of turkey vulture in the sky far away.

One of the more well-named birds.
Though both vulture species here are dark, they are quite different birds:
Black vulture and turkey vulture, aside from colouration difference, black
vulture has much broader wings making the tail look shorter. And the tail is quite
different in itself. On the ground, the dark grey vs pink head is the easiest ID point.
I will also give an honourable mention to the American white ibis for its blue eyes, a rare occurrence in nature:

Other birds seen include wood stork, myrtle warbler and the omnipresent palm warbler. The palm warbler seems to be one of the most abundant birds in Florida, a curiosity considering the other two places I've seen them they have been a rarity. The most notable feature of the bird is that it is the only warbler of its size that wags its tail. Makes it much easier to identify those silhouettes up in the trees!

Not much to look at I'm afraid. The eastern subspecies is bright yellow. However, this is
the western subspecies. Ah well.
Homosassa Springs is named for its spring, one that has a side effect of attracting several hundreds of fish. These fish circled endlessly around the spring in separate single-species schools. Splashing at the surface by its lonesome was this interesting remora. Remoras are the fairly well known "shark suckers" that attach themselves to passing sharks. I have no idea how common it is to see them in a place like this, but here it was.

Remora.
Some other fish at the location:
Florida gar.
Crevalle jack (taken from inside observatory building right in the center of the spring.)
Common snook
Manatees are surprisingly common in this region. If I ever get some decent shots that show more than the end of a nose, I will post them.

Day's list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21298038


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In the afternoon we got down to Jenkins Creek Park. The immediate bonus here was a great flock of boat-tailed grackles, the eastern equivalent to the ubiquitous great-tailed grackle. For those who haven't seen them, enjoy:

As is common with iridescent colouration, the photos do not do it justice.
The females can't vouch for the same fantastic iridescence but are still attractive in their own buffy-brown way:


While photographing grackles, an "old" friend from California flew up onto the docks of the Creek, scratching the wooden fence with its talons: a Brewer's blackbird. This bird was loosely hanging out with the grackle flock, and it was a bird that I later found was very rare in Florida. I thought I had left this "trash bird" (not my words) behind in the west! I later learnt that along with being a rare bird, this particular individual was the only one known in the entire of Florida. Lucky me?????


I had my first confirmed look at laughing gull here as well.

Across the road (literally) was Linda Pederson Park. Though it was mostly identical, it was subtly variable and was somewhere else to pass the time at least! This Atlantic needlefish pattered along the surface of the creek. I later learnt for myself that these are quite regular in these near-coastal freshwater habitats. Here is a bad picture of it:



Of other interest...well how about I just show you the picture of this forest? Perhaps if you live in Florida it isn't unusual for you, but for the rest of us:

Palm trees as far as the eye can see...

Nearby in a hedgerow I heard a familiar sound and traced it to a tufted titmouse and friends. If your knowledge of the "Tit" family consists only of common European species you might not immediately see the resemblance with this bird. Though it is quite a plain bird, our species in California doesn't even have the reddish flanks or black area above the bill! Always a charismatic group of birds though, usually turns up in groups.

Tufted titmouse
I don't know when they arrived but as I was about to exit the park these sandhill cranes showed up in the car park! This is my first wild sighting with any member of the crane family. Too be fair a significant proportion of crane species are found in Asia and eastern Europe, an area I have not visited.


As you may have noticed, they were quite tame. These two birds were not unusual in this,
most cranes here seem quite used to human presence.


Jenkin's Creek: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21301885
Linda Pedersen: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21301973