Rather than drive partway to Tallahassee the night before and complete the trip the next day, I decided it would be best to get up at 0200 and head all the way up and back in the same day. This day, February 25, 2012, was my one chance to see the Lark bunting, not on my Florida list yet, and Green-tailed towhee, three different counties (who wants to make it four?) that were in a closed area of Tall Timbers Research Station north of Tallahassee, FL.
I had set out extra early in the hopes of getting some county birding in before meeting the group at the station. I made it as far as Jefferson County before daylight. Jefferson is one of my weakest counties, primarily due to the lack of easy access to the coast. Jefferson is unique among the 67 counties of Florida in that it touches both the Gulf of Mexico and Georgia. All the other counties along the gulf either connect to Alabama or are cut off from other states by intervening counties. The coastal section of Jefferson is entirely within St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge. Access to this area by foot is possible from the Lighthouse Unit of SMNWR, but it is a long walk. I will make it someday, but not today. I say Jefferson is one of my weakest counties not because of my total list (153 at the time of this writing, in a three way tie for #50) but because of the total in relation to the potential list. I have calculated potential totals for each county based on what I have and the likelihood of getting species that I do not have on those lists. My last place county (De Soto - 131 species) is at about 91% of its estimated potential total (144.) Jefferson at 153 is at about 70% of its estimated potential total of 217. Getting to that total will require several visits to the coastal sections of Jefferson either on long hikes or boating trips. What adventures to come, if only people would stop paying me to bird elsewhere.
So, Jefferson County listing was the start of the day. I still have many gaps in my Jefferson County list, including sparrows, ducks, and rails. These seemed the logical targets for a few hours before heading to Tall Timbers, so I stopped at a small farm pond about a mile north of I-10 on US 19. The wind was howling already, not a good sign for the chase to come. I found 16 Canada geese on the pond. No easy ticks like Hooded merganser and Blue-winged teal which still elude my Jefferson list. The fence line is festooned with weeds which make for great cover and food for sparrows, many species of which are not found on my Jefferson list. In the wind and slight chill, the sparrows seemed to opt for the cover over food. At any rate, I decided to get closer to Tall Timbers and check on Lake Miccosukee for ducks and maybe a rail or two.
One of my favorite spots to hit Lake Miccosukee is on US 90 where it crosses the river which is dammed to create the lake. This is a known spot for nesting Barn swallows which may explain the extremely early (scout?) Barn swallow that flew over me while standing on the dock. The boat ramp to access the lake is on the Leon side of the lake, but the lake itself is in Jefferson. It was here at this ramp that I got my first Black-bellied whistling duck for both counties as if flew over the lake and then over the west bank into Leon County. This morning there were numbers of wading birds and a few ducks. Many more ducks were in flight too far north for me to ID. I suspect the majority were Ring-necked ducks. I spent a little time and then moved on to another spot.
Another favorite spot of mine is the boat ramp at the end of Reeves Landing Road on the west side of the lake. Here you can stand at the edge of Leon and look out into Jefferson County. This is where I got my first Purple gallinule for Jefferson and American bittern on the same day. Today, I would add merely nothing to the list. It was time to get on to Tall Timbers to see lots of people that I know and hopefully the two rare birds.
Elliott Schunke who is working with Brown-headed nuthatches at Tall Timbers was the one, along with Andy Wraithmell who found the Lark Bunting and Green-tailed towhee. He also arranged for special access for the 30 or so people who came out this day. After everyone was briefed and turned in the right direction, we headed off to the fields of towhees and Lark buntings. We stopped short of the spot where both birds had been seen on the same perch earlier in the week so we could walk quietly and not disturb the shy towhee. It was not long that we, or at least some of us, were able to see the Green-tailed towhee perched among the dead vine leaves. What remarkable camouflage?!? I don't know if I had ever seen one off the ground before at least in Florida. I saw each of Florida's first three Green-tailed towhees, but after the onslaught of reports this year, I gave up on keeping the claim of seeing all of Florida's Green-tailed towhee. I may still be leading the state with four total. More importantly, they are in four different counties. I have to admit, I am not that enthused about heading to Possum Branch in Pinellas to see a Green-tailed towhee that would not even be a county tick. If I'm going to go over there, I want to try for something I don't have like screech owl or Barred owl. Anyway, it was a good start to the day, now if we could quickly get the Lark bunting, I could be on my way and get home at a decent time. If only. The Lark bunting would prove to be a much tougher bird this day. We tromped all over where it had been seen so many times before, Elliott showed us all of its perches and favorite clumps, but no bird for some time. It was pushing noon and no Lark bunting. This was the real prize for me, a state bird, not merely a county bird. Finally, as the group was contemplating strategy for the remainder of the day, word came that the bird had been seen in its favorite clump. I sprinted over there only to find folks talking about White-crowned sparrows. Who cares about White-crowned sparrows when there is a Lark bunting around?!? I managed to get people's minds focused back on the bird at hand and they said the bird had dropped down into the bush and had maybe flown out the back. We surrounded the clump and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited. Finally we moved in for the kill only to find that the bird apparently had gone out the back door. Another strategy session and another sighting, this time the bird was across the field and around the corner. I sprinted once again and found people saying the bird was up in the pine tree. Apparently one of the 15,000,000 pine trees found on the property. After a little more mind-focusing exercises I was able to ascertain the whereabouts of the bird just before it flew clear across the field. I was happy with this. Not a life bird look, but it was on my state list now. I walked across the field where the bird had again landed in a pine tree. I was able to put a few folks on it before it flew again. After this, my thoughts turned toward the next phase. That being lunch and more county listing on the way home.
It was a great trip, always is when you get the bird, and I got to see several folks I knew and meet a few more. The people part of the trip is always good, even when you don't get the bird.