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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

STA 1E

On Saturday March 3, 2012, I had the honor and privilege of leading a trip to STA 1E for Audubon of the Everglades.  These trips were arranged through South Florida Water Management District by Linda Humphries, President of Audubon of Everglades.  Access to these areas is not allowed under normal circumstances.

Linda, myself, Larry and Tony Pasko, and Paton White arrived before the 8:00 start time to scout the route (I had not been there before) and to see where the birds were staying this day.  We ventured into the fog to see what there was to see.  Black-bellied whistling-ducks called in the mist, the only ones we would observe that day.  The habitat on the way out was thick with cattails, good for rails, bad for viewing.  Once we arrived at the target cell, we were greeted with huge numbers of birds of many varieties.  Black skimmers were abundant, probably 300-500 in total.  Very nervous these guys, they constantly flushed, circled, and settled back down, sometimes in a nearby cell, sometimes where they started.  Every time they flushed, I looked around for a Peregrine falcon or an eagle.  Most often there was an Osprey or a vulture overhead.  Among the Black skimmers were many Caspian terns but no Forster's that I could see.  A lone Ring-billed gull flew by.  Shorebirds were also abundant.  Among the hordes were Long-billed dowitcher, Stilt sandpipers, American avocet, Black-necked stilts, and Greater yellowlegs.  There were probably more, but my interest was directed toward the ducks.  I have seen most every shorebird that could be seen in Palm Beach County in winter, but my list of ducks in Palm Beach has many holes.  Canvasback, Cinnamon teal, and Eurasian wigeon would all be valuable county ticks.  Most of the ducks, it seemed, were Gadwall.  American wigeon, the less interesting teal (Green and Blue-winged), Ring-nekced duck, and Mottled ducks were present.  A lone male Lesser scaup skirted the back of the open water.  Scaup are less common than Ring-necked in fresh water, but in some winters can be quite common inland.  The real prize, for me were the three female Canvasback swimming quickly toward the back of the impoundment.  Palm Beach County #274 for me.  This elevated Palm Beach to #4 by itself, breaking a tie with Monroe.  The rest of the scouting trip produced several clusters of birds worthy of checking out with the group, but not much of note.

Upon arrival at the gate the group was beginning to assemble.  While taking a necessary restroom break (there is only one port-a-potty and the group must stay together for the four hour trip) we scoped a couple Grasshopper sparrows that were nice enough to stay up for most of the group to see.  The caravan gathered, release forms were signed, radios distributed, and we were on our way.  The first stop was the skimmer-fest we saw in the scouting run.  Upon arrival it was apparent that many of the birds, most notably the ducks, had moved.  Skimmers were again very jumpy, this time with good reason.  We had barely gotten out of the vehicles when a Peregrine falcon cruised over the birds.  This may explain the lack of ducks.  We managed to get good looks at many of the ducks.  The Canvasbacks were not to be found.  The scaup did not materialize, but we had good close looks at sleeping Long-billed dowitchers and Stilt sandpipers.  We lingered for awhile knowing that this was the best stop of the day.

Eventually we set off to find other birds.  There were several other clusters of Skimmers and Caspian terns.  We stopped for one of the larger clusters and found several sitting groups of Fulvous whistling ducks.  Us old timers remember a time when Fulvous whistling ducks were fairly widely distributed and you had to make a special effort to find Black-bellied.  30 years later the reverse is the case.

We made several stops for Purple swamp hen, a recently escaped exotic that has colonized much of south Florida's wetlands in the last 12 years.  Another few years, and this one will likely be on the ABA list.  They proved to be excruciatingly shy this day.  Every time we would stop to see them, they would scurry off into the vegetation not to be seen again.  Eventually we would get marginal looks at one that came back out on the edge of the marsh for some time.

The winds were increasing when we finally found some non-Caspian terns.  Gull-billed was the prize,  A few were seen, but the wind was proving problematic.  The birds were directly downwind of us.  Terns and other birds tend to orient themselves with they heads into the wind on windy days, therefore we had great head-on views.  We were able to move down the dike a little and get decent views for those who wanted.

The bird of the day was near the end of the impoundment.  I saw a strange-looking icterid fly up and settle on some pipes at the east side of the impoundment.  It was about the same size as the Red-winged blackbird two pipes down.  The massive bill and ruff on the neck told me it was a male Bronzed cowbird.  This species has long been a rare but regular all and winter vagrant in Florida from the west.  Some of the birds in southeast Florida and perhaps elsewhere in Florida, have decided not to go back west and are now resident and breeding.  This male was singing for us, or more likely for any females that may have been present.  It allowed for some distant, badly lit looks.  Some photographers got some decent shots and we were about to leave when I noticed the bird had landed right in front of the lead vehicle.  This is when I realized that it was the Bronzed cowbird that was singing and not Brown-headed as I had thought.  I decided this would be a good ending to the trip even though we had about a half hour to kill before we had to get back.  I'm not a big fan of dragging out a trip just to end at a particular time.  If you are at a good end point and it's near the end time, it's time to end.

So we headed back to the lone restroom and the gate, gathered radios, said our good-byes and heading our separate ways.

I had a really good time and look forward to going again.  Audubon of the Everglades will be leading trips twice a month for the foreseeable future.  The first Saturday of the month will be a birder oriented trip, the third Saturday will be photographer oriented.  More information can be found at their website:

http://www.auduboneverglades.org/?p=2130

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