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?





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