Third try, before the details slip my mind forever. Actually this final rough draft is about the sixth, after restarting yet aging and again. But enough about that.
Among my many obligations, I carved out Monday morning to do some county listing in Manatee and maybe Sarasota County. I stayed at my cousins' place in Plant City so I could hit CR 675 in Manatee, the spot where Gilley Creek runs under the road on it's way to Lake Manatee, at dawn Monday morning before eventually heading to Moore Haven for work. That was the plan. County listing is about opportunity. This spot has produced some good birds for my Manatee list in the past, but I have not been able to hit it in winter. Species like Marsh and Sedge wren, King and Virginia rails, Blue-winged teal, Wood duck, Greater yellowlegs, American and Least bitterns, and many other embarrassing misses haunt my Manatee list. All could be at this spot in winter.
County listing is about opportunity. My Washington County list is much higher since I was able to be up there after a very wet spring in 2009 and picked up such gems as White-rumped and Semipalmated sandpipers. In 2007, Edgefield Conservation Area in Putnam County had the perfect conditions for shorebirds: shallow water and sparse vegetation. That year I ticked many species of shorebirds and 182 species for the year, in just six visits! Razorbills wrapped around the state last winter and I got them in nine counties. This year Black scoters are doing the same. Many are being seen up and down the southwest coast. My Sarasota list was at 190, nearing the magic number of 200. Manatee was at a mere 172. The species I might find at the Gilley Creek marsh are likely to be there the rest of the winter. Scoters, maybe not so much. Weighing the options and considering the lack of time, I decided to hit Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota to get scoters (many sightings on eBird lately.) Snowy plovers have been showing in ridiculous numbers there (15 on eBird lately) so surely I can add Wilson's and Piping plovers for Sarasota.
Manatee out, Sarasota in. I made it to Siesta Key in record time, thanks to light traffic and unusually cooperative lights in Sarasota. Sarasota County is not known for its traffic engineering prowess. Coming from the east coast of Florida, I find it odd to look out over the sea in the early morning and not have to dodge the sun. This isn't really a problem looking for scoters which are usually right near the breakers on the Atlantic. The gulf coast waters much more shallow and spread out, and so are the birds.
Siesta Key Beach is a remarkable collage of habitats and land uses. There is a very large public park and beach access area a couple miles south of the tip. The beach here is very wide and very well groomed. Tractors rake the beach every day getting rid of pesky habitat that shorebirds need to eat and and grasses they need to hide from predators. Walking toward the tip of the island, the beach variously narrows and widens until it disappears altogether before the shoreline wraps the north end of the island. Condos and resort hotels look out over the beach and water all along the way. The wide sections of beach offer swales where high tides settle behind sub dunes and grassy strips, ideal habitat for Snowy plovers to breed and feed. Other small plovers, Wilson's (breeds), Semipalmated, and Piping should be found here as well. Snowy plovers, perhaps Sandy plover would be a better name given how well they blend in with the beach sand, were not in evidence on the way up. On the way back, I came across a pair, then more, then eventually 14 in one scan. Where were they on the way up? Sandy plovers, indeed. Sadly, I did see a 15th bird (same number reported on eBird) but the last one was found dead on the beach. No obvious reason for death nor bands on the legs. I saw Black-bellied and Semipalmated plovers, but not Wilson's or Piping.
Meanwhile, offshore, I spied some ducks, (yay!) but they were Ring-necked ducks (boo!) Eventually I saw some loons, gannets, Red-breasted mergansers, unidentified non-scoter ducks, but no scoters. No new birds for the list at all. I did get to hand out a few business cards and help some folks figure out the new birds they were seeing.
Next opportunity was the Founders Club Ponds on Fruitville Road east of the Celery Fields. Common goldeneye and Canvasback were recently found in this pond, both very good birds for south Florida. Goldeneye are typically found in north Florida along the coast in salt water. When found inland, they tend to occur in retention ponds filled with small fish and they enjoy the company of Hooded mergansers. Both species swim under water and eat the little fish. I got out and scanned with binoculars first and found the goldeneye, with the mergansers and many, many Ring-necked ducks. I came back with the 'scope and spent a long, long time looking for the goldeneye again. I began to wonder if I saw actually saw the bird. Diving ducks, such as these, can be quite annoying when actively feeding. They can spend 90% of their time under water and one individual can be hard to observe in a large flock. Once the birds finished their breakfast and began preen and rest and digest the lowest percentile of the fish population, I, and the others who materialized around me, were able to get good views of the goldeneye.
I kept looking at the time and calculating the possibility of hitting another spot in Sarasota before heading off to work. A particularly friendly photographer frittered away any hope of even ducking back into Celery Fields before heading to Moore Haven for work. Then it occurred to me: I only have to do one survey this week, not every day. I was planning to stay the night in Clewiston afterward anyway and Dee and I were not due to the ELC until 2 the next afternoon. I had time to do a morning survey in Moore Haven and still get home in time to string lights for the WinterGreen NightLights. I could relax and bird all day, what a concept? I haven't done that in a long while, always birding on the way from here to there.
The whole day was not at my command, and I set out to add more ticks to the list. Celery Fields held some promise with recent sightings of Gadwall and possibility of Northern pintail. The place has changed a lot since I was last there. The mound has landscaping and trails all over it. There is a new gazebo and nature center under construction. There were no new county birds for me, but it was nice to roam the top of the hill and scan the wetlands.
Myakka River State Park was next on the agenda. Palmer Road was not the quickest way to get there, but it offered an opportunity to look for another of my targets, Crested caracara. I snaked my way along the road until I came to one of those opportunistic eBird Stationary Counts I so enjoy. We'll call it Palmer Lake, after the sign I could see from where I stopped. The pond is a large retention pond next to a development. Many of the birds were similar to the ones seen at Founders Club Ponds. In addition, there were lots of gulls and terns in the shallow center of the pond. I spied a couple of Royal terns, uncommon inland, but inexplicably regular at Celery Fields, and apparently here. The more common (at least inland) Caspian tern continues to elude my Sarasota list. Across from the pond was a pasture area, surely this is where the caracaras have been seen. I kept scanning the fields and eventually spotted a caracara, not in the field, but on a pole near an uneasy mockingbird. Nice tick! Untickable was a single Mute swan sitting on the lawn across the way. I hope it stays just one. This aggressive exotic species can be very disruptive to native ecosystems.
Since I am no longer a Florida Park Service employee, I have to get a new annual park pass once a year. As I strolled over to the ranger station, I looked up at the vultures and added Short-tailed hawk to my Sarasota list! Short-tailed hawks mimic vultures, soaring near them to conceal their intention to eat the birds (Red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks and the like) then dropping in a stoop to take the prey unawares.
Pass acquired, I set off into the park. The water level was down, not good for the chances of snagging the Cinnamon teal that has been at the park lately. I ate lunch at the lake, watching the park's paddle boat cruising for Alligators and other wildlife. I scanned the lake for signs of ducks, shorebirds, anything I could add to my list. Way out across the lake, I saw a strip of white and gray. The white had black on top. 26 Black-necked stilts on the far shore. Many more Long-billed dowitchers and other stuff I could not quite tell. Right in front of them was a Caspian tern, finally!
The lake itself held little in the way of ducks. One that was quite odd for inland was a Red-breasted merganser that flew in, far to the east. These birds are usually found in salt or brackish water in winter. Common merganser prefers fresh water. They do not prefer Florida. You can bet I checked this bird out for that possibility, a state bird in addition to a county bird, but it was just a Red-breasted. Red-breasted merganser would have been more valuable as a county tick if it were one county over in DeSoto.
Before leaving the boat ramp area and heading to the Bird Walk, I walked off through the woods to the CCC structure (weir) that holds the water up to form the lake. Black vultures, abundant in this area, make good use of the area. As I approached, I heard Alligators growling. Seems strange at this time of year. I then realized it was a recording at the informational kiosk nearby. I wonder what the local Alligators think of this? Strange sighting of the day, two Rock pigeons on the wires in the middle of the park. I lack various wintering songbirds in Sarasota, so I kept an ear out as I walked back through the woods. I saw a couple Palm warblers on the ground. Then I noticed one was a Pine warbler. Then I noticed a great deal of shuffling in the trees around me. All around, from the ground to the tree tops, I was surrounded by silent songbirds! Surely, I would get Orange-crowned warbler, Ruby-crowned kinglet for my list. I didn't, and stop calling me Shirley. I did get lots of Pine warblers along with "Yellow" palm warblers, Black-and-white warbler, and Blue-headed vireo. Nice flock, even if I did not get any ticks.
Next stop, the Bird Walk. And a very birdy walk it was! As I headed out on the boardwalk, I saw flocks of shorebirds, ducks, and even turkeys out in the newly exposed lake bed. The mud had been exposed long enough to grow a carpet of green, but not so much as to hide the turkeys. Least sandpipers were the shorebird of the day with at least 650 counted on the non-vegetated sections of exposed mud flats. Long-billed dowitchers, the expected species on dowitcher on fresh water in winter, were next most common. I picked out a couple of Stilt sandpipers and 45 Dunlin. Both are uncommon and local inland in winter. Four more Caspian terns, now they are just taunting me, were flying around the end of the lake and loafing in the shallows. There were still Blue-winged teal on the lake, but no Cinnamon. I got 42 species in 45 minutes.
I had added five species to my Sarasota list to bring it up to 195 (later I would realize that it was actually 198 since I was working off an out of date print). I had to start thinking of getting back to Clewiston for the night. I decided to leave the county on SR 72 to check the back side of Myakka River SP and see if I could snag an Eastern bluebird in the scraps of flat woods or maybe a Virginia rail in one of the marshes. I did not find much in the way of flat woods, and the side rails made it hard to stop anyway. However, I did find a very nice marsh that had a somewhat cooperative King rail that responded to my Virginia rail calls. Wrong species, dude!
So that was it for Sarasota. I did not know at the time, but I had inched the Sarasota List to 198 lifetime and 105 for the day. Imagine the possibilities for a pre-planned Big Day!