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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Willow flycatcher in Volusia County

County listing in 67 counties simultaneously can drive one a bit nuts.  There has to be a way to cut down on the multiple directions I am drawn.  I do this by creating a filter of goals and thresholds to guide the decision-making process when a birding opportunity (migration event, rare bird sighting, road trip) occurs.  I want to get 150+ species in all counties, 200+ in 34 counties (more than half), 250+ in 10 counties, and 300+ in four counties.  I also want 100 species on my All-County List.  That is I want 100 species that I have seen in each and every county.  Therefore, when a Say's phoebe (which I already have in three counties) is reported in DeSoto County in late October, I can run it through my filters to see if I want to chase.  DeSoto County is at 150 species.  I have hit 150, but am nowhere near 200.  There are some species getting near the All-County List such as American coot, Ring-necked duck, and Summer tanager.  It's a little late for tanager and the others are more likely later in the year.  I still need the migrant thrushes for DeSoto and Hardee to the north, so I could manage a trip to the county line in the early AM and get them a little closer.  But, for the most part, I am probably better off hitting the area at a later date for winter stuff or another time for thrushes.

However, when Michael Brothers calls me to report a Willow flycatcher he found at Lake Woodruff NWR that morning, it's a different story.  Willow flycatcher is very hard to find in Florida.  They are migrants only and are usually silent.  Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously difficult to identify and Willow and Alder (formerly considered one species,Traill's flycatcher) are even harder to separate.  Call notes and songs of the two species are fairly easy to distinguish, but they are often silent in migration.  Recently, there has been in increase in sightings (hearings) of Alder flycatcher in Florida.  Willows are beginning to follow suit.  Until recently, I still needed Willow for my Florida list.  One has spent nearly two months in Dade recently and it furnished me with my first for Florida.  So Willow is not a state bird or anywhere near the All-County list.  Enter the 300 Club.  Brevard, my native county, is the only member at 358.  Volusia, it's neighbor to the north, was sitting at 293 species.  At that level, there is little or no "low-hanging fruit."  Add to that, the fact that we were heading down I-95 from St. Augustine and we were not that far from Lake Woodruff, and my wonderful wife Dee was willing to detour to the refuge to let me look for the bird, and we are on our way.

We arrived around 1400 and quickly headed out to the spot where Michael heard the bird.  There is a dense, wet swamp of Red maple and willow trees not far from the trailhead.  Time of day was not great.  It was hot and humid and little tiny flycatchers are prone to just sit silently at this time of day.  I was not prepared to stay until near sunset when flycatchers are prone to call and feed more actively.  The prospect of rain seemed unlikely.  Brief rain storms often bring out brief periods and activity in songbirds in the afternoon.  This is what happened when I got my first Willow flycatcher in Florida at Lucky Hammock in Dade County.  A short duration storm passed through and in a 3-5 minute period, four Alders and one Willow flycatcher called for me.  That was not going to happen this day.

Bob Wallace called me to let me know that he was also stopping by on the way home, he from New Smyrna Beach.  Bob and I set up at different spots along the swamp edge and he eventually heard the bird call twice.  I came down to where he was and we eventually set up near where he heard the bird and where Michael last heard and briefly saw the bird.  Eventually, Bob headed off to take home his fresh fish on ice to prepare for supper.  I was weighting the options of heading home and trying again the next day, or staying a little longer.  The bird could take off during the night, but it would be fairly active early on if it stays.  I was texting Dee to get her feelings on the subject (she had walked back to the car to get hydrated) when the bird called 3-4 times right near me, very low to the ground.  I ran around the corner to find Bob still in the area.  We came back and looked and listened some more, but neither of us had the time to keep at it.  I was happy to count #294 for Volusia.  That's four new Volusia birds in recent days, ever so closer to 300!

The other counties on the list to enter the 300 club are Dade with 289 and Palm Beach with 288.  Dade has many low-hanging fruit that hang from Toe's (Roberto Torres) new boat.  One good Toelagic (pelagic trip in Dade waters on Toe's boat) in late August or September would add 8-9 species to Dade.  Other "easy" birds are Bay-breasted and Connecticut warblers, Horned grebe, White-rumped sandpiper, and others.  It's going to happen soon.  Palm Beach has some ridiculously easy birds like Scarlet tanager, Hermit thrush, and Cory's shearwater as well as less easy species like Connecticut, Bay-breasted, and Swainson's warblers.  I'll get there eventually.  County listing, the fun never ends!

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