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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More Arm Chair County Listing

eBird has a new feature called "Target Lists" in which you can enter an area (County, State, etc.) and a range of months and eBird will compare your eBird list (Life, Year, Month) to what has been reported in that area.  This is a particularly useful tool for planning my upcoming trips around CBC's etc.  eBird counts everything on your list, not just ABA Countable species, therefore I have always and will continue to keep my official lists on MS Excel.  In the past, I have gone through periods where I did not keep good records and much of what I saw before eBird came along is long forgotten or only exist in vague memories, the dates faded away with time.  Thus, my eBird lists lagged behind my official lists in nearly all counties.  In order to take advantage of the new tool, I uploaded my county lists to eBird using the standard protocol for entering historic lists.  eBird protocol for entering historic records, where the date is unknown, is to use 01/01/1900 as the date.  If the approximate date is known, that can be inserted into the checklist or species comments.  I reviewed the records (those not reviewed by the local reviewers) and invalidated them with the code "Observer Building Lists" so they not skew the scientific value of eBird (I have always thought that eBird should be above listing, but I could not resist the new tool.)

Last night, I stumbled across an unexpected bonus.  I happened to pull up my Franklin County list on eBird and noticed that there was a species (I don't remember which) that I had entered into eBird, but somehow failed to tally on my official list (i.e. the first date recorded was other than 01/01/1900.)  Eureka!  I could go through and find other "Arm Chair Ticks!"  Surely there would only be a few more to add, here and there.  D'oh!  38 counties, more than half, had armchair ticks waiting for me.  I'm really bad at this county listing thing.  When all was said and done, I added another All-County Species (Black-and-white warbler was seen in Bay County after all, 58 down, 42 to go) and another bird for the half county list (now 195 species over the 33 county mark, getting me closer to the goal of seeing 200 species in over half the counties, with three more sitting at 33 and six more at 32) I had 13399 county ticks, one away from the goal of averaging 200 in every county.

Then, I discovered an old Florida Field Naturalist Vol. 31, No. 2, May 2003 (I've been doing some fall cleaning lately.)  In the Field Observations section there were a number of reports from (D. Simpson) including a Long-tailed duck in Volusia County.  TICK!  I got to the goal of averaging 200 in every county while reading in bed before going to sleep.  Rather anti-climatic, but it was nice to get to that goal and get closer to a few others (I picked up two in Hernando, now 199, one in Dade, now 298, and Volusia is now 295, a little closer to the goal of 300.)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Swallow watching in Florida

One of my favorite things to do in August and September in Florida is watch migrating swallows.   Most of the time, 99% of the swallows you see will be Barn swallows.  That's not to say they will be boring.  There are numerous juvenile birds with shorter tails and variably pale underparts.  Adults are also paler than in the spring; many of them will be pale to the point of being almost white underneath.  Once in a great while you will encounter what I like to call and Fork-tailed snow-swallow which is a fancy way of describing a leucistic Barn swallow.  I've only seen 2-3 of these among the millions of Barn swallows.

Where do you look for swallows in migration?

Try edges of water bodies, especially Lake Okeechobee.  If you're near the beach, head there.  Swallows (and many other birds) use the coast as a navigational aid.  Large open spaces like agricultural fields and pastures often attract migrating swallows and make good vistas for observing swallows.  Emerging termite swarms, or any other flying insects, are great places to observe swallows as they stop to fuel up.  You can often stand in the swarm of insects as the birds fly all around you, close enough to hear the bills snap as they catch their prey.

What do I look for?

Flight patterns can be helpful, but are variable with wind conditions and activity.  During high winds or when swallows are actively feeding, flight patterns can vary considerably.  Structure and size can help to pick out oddballs.

Wow, this is hard!

Swallows are very fast fliers, so don't get frustrated while watching them.  It takes time and patience to get good at swallow ID.  Even the best have a hard time identifying avery one.

Some ID Tips for swallows at this time of year in Florida (in order of relative abundance):
Barn swallow -  Iridescent blue upper parts.  Variably forked tail, nearly always more deeply forked than other species.  Dark reddish throat contrasts with rest of underparts.  Underparts vary from nearly white in faded individuals or juveniles to reddish or orangish.  Long, narrow wings often drawn back to the sides of the body when flapping.

Bank swallow -  Underparts very white.  Narrow brown breast band sometimes not visible, giving the appearance of completely white underparts.  This probably accounts for misidentification of this species as Tree swallow.  Tree swallows can occur at this time of year, but most of them don't arrive until October when they gradually become the dominant swallow species.  Bank swallows are noticeably smaller than other species with narrower wings and shorter, more slender bodies.  Tails are slightly notched, but not nearly so much as all but perhaps the very shortest-tailed Barn swallows.  Flight varies from flapping with the wings straight out to drawing the wings back as in Barn swallow.

Cliff swallow -  Sometimes more numerous than Bank.  Perhaps an earlier migrant.  A few known breeding colonies in Florida.  Noticeably thicker body and broader wings.  Tends to fly with wings straight out.  Often flies in roller coaster like fashion.  Dark throat pattern similar to Barn swallow.  Underparts much paler than most Barn swallows, not showing the reddish tinge of Barn swallows.  Upperparts iridescent blue with creamy or buffy, pale rump.  Pale forehead often looks like headlamp if the birds are flying straight at you.  Tail is short and squared.

Northern rough-winged swallow -  Brown on back as in Bank swallow.  Underparts variable, but smudgy brown, unlike clear white of Bank and Tree swallows.  Flight pattern is similar to Barn swallow.  More common around Lake Okeechobee where 100's or even 1000's are known to overwinter.

Purple martin -  Most of these pass through before August.  Those that remain are usually juveniles.  Much larger than other swallows.  Big body, broader wings, notched tail, and fairly uniform gray underparts.

Tree swallow -  A few usually trickle through in August before the hordes arrive in October.  Bright white underneath.  Some juveniles have have s slightly dusky breast.  Females are duller than males, but adult male and female show iridescent green on the back.  Juveniles can be brown on the back, making them look more like Bank swallows.  Tree lacks breast band, which can be invisible on some looks at Bank, are usually brighter white underneath and have broader wings and thicker body than Bank swallow.

Cave swallow -  Very rare migrant or lingering breeders.  Many Cave swallows breed under bridges in eastern Miami-Dade County.  These may disperse to other areas in late summer.  Cave swallows from Texas may wander around to the east side of the Gulf of Mexico into Florida.  Very similar to Cliff swallow.  Rump and forehead usually more rusty colored.  Throat not as dark as Cliff, orange color extending up the side of the head and behind the eye.  Flight pattern more similar to Barn swallow, tending to draw wings back toward body more so than Cliff which usually keeps wings out from body.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why do I do it?

I was recently asked a few questions about my experience in birding and what I find so interesting about it.

- What is the most memorable moment in your 25 years of birding and guiding?

So many moments over the years.  I suppose the most memorable moment occurred during my second Florida Big Year in 2001.  It was in the afternoon one October day, during a long day of searching for year birds.  I walked down the Oak Hammock Trail at Merritt Island NWR.  Prior to federal ownership, there was a homestead in the area.  Just off the trail is an artificial pond, where annually, an Alligator raises it's young.  I had walked to this pond many, many times while birding the hammock and on my own and during Christmas Bird Counts.  Never did I find anything of interest, but it always seemed a good spot.  This time, I arrived and, as always, there was nothing of particular note.  I looked up at a Golden Orb Spider on it's web and it disappeared, consumed by a Sulphur-bellied flycatcher.  The pic on the link does not do justice to this remarkably beautiful and extremely rare (in Florida) bird.  I was stunned by the bird's sudden appearance, but recovered in time to check under the chin for the complete, dark strap connecting the stripes that edged the throat.  I was just a little disappointed to see this as the lack of this feature would have opened the possibility of Streaked flycatcher, a new bird for the U.S. rather than a mere county bird (I saw one on my first Big Year the year before in Miami.)   Still, this was one of those unforgettable experiences in birding and one of the real reasons why I do this.

- Is there a region or event that draws your attention most during the (Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife) Festival?

Picking favorites is a difficulty for me.  The favorite varies with the time and my mood.  The lower keys, the only tropical region of the continental U.S., has always been a favorite part of the keys for me.    One park, located in the middle keys, has always intrigued me.  Long Key State Park, a thin strip of land between US 1 and the Atlantic, has a remarkable array of habitats and birds.  Here you can walk the narrow sandy beach in search of shorebirds, stand atop a shaky wooden tower and survey the top of the mangrove forest, walk the nature trail with it's mangrove swamps, tropical hammock and open barrens where swallows and hawks often pass low overhead, or even rent a canoe and explore the tidal creek and surrounding waters.  Many a rare bird has shown up here with reports of Key West Quail-dove, Western spindalis, and others over the years.  It is a good spot for Mangrove cuckoo and Black-whiskered vireo in the spring and summer.  I have been here many times, but always feel as if there is more to be seen.  During the Florida Keys Hawkwatch last year, the hawk watchers conducted early morning surveys of the nature trail before heading to the hawk watch.  We ran a couple of tours with the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival after the hawk watchers surveyed and we got very different results.  Migrant songbirds move mostly at night, but they often continue to move on their trajectory after making landfall, thus the birds that are there in the early morning are not necessarily going to be the ones you see later when the park opens at 8.

- Is there a bird in this region you favor more than others?

Same problem of picking favorites.  I suppose the Antillean nighthawk is my favorite in the region.  Their only breeding grounds in the U.S. are in the Florida Keys, although a few might venture up to the mainland at times.  Common nighthawks, a species with which they were once "lumped", breed on the mainland and into the upper keys, but the lower keys are the domain of the Antillean nighthawk.

- What continues to draw yo to birding and sharing your knowledge with others?

Because it's fun?  I don't really know.  I am very interested in Florida's ecology, especially the birds, but really everything about it.  I enjoy sharing that passion and my knowledge with anyone who will listen, which is why I like to lead trips for festivals and guide people about the state.  I try to do more than just show people the birds, but tell them a bit about the birds and the land and how it all fits together.

Monday, March 24, 2014

12 Day Big Year Day 3

My long term strategy for this 12 Day Big Year has been a moving target.  I only heard about it in early January.  My January schedule only allowed one date, January 9th, for Day 1.  The panhandle is key to success in this competition.  Fortunately, I was already in the panhandle that week for a couple of Christmas Bird Count's and some county listing.  I have a lot of experience with Big Days in Florida and have run two Florida Big Years.  The strategy for a 12 Day Big Year is a hybrid of these two types of birding.  You must get as many species as you can in each day of effort, but you only have to get each species once.  Common, easy birds will be ticked while you get the rare birds (Big Year strategy.)  The person with the most rare birds wins.  Low density birds or semi-specialized species could sneak up on you if you don't make at least a token effort for them along the way.  Picking up species like these early can help free the schedule in later days.

Day 1 was dedicated to getting some of the St. Marks NWR specialties such as Mallard, American black duck, and White-faced ibis out of the way while getting the pesky Vermilion flycatcher and a slough of ducks and Nelson's sparrow in the lighthouse area.  This year, there was a unique cluster of rarities in the Jacksonville vicinity (Snowy owl, Harlequin duck, and Snow bunting) that demanded attention.  Bad weather and bad luck would curtail some of my efforts on SMNWR.  I missed the flycatcher, black duck, and ibis, but cleaned up on ducks and got the sparrow in the lighthouse area.  Jacksonville came through on the main targets.  I failed to pick up any bonus birds like Saltmarsh sparrow or scoters other than Black.  Day 2, also on the 9th, was a long one.  I decided to take advantage of recent rarities in southwest Florida (getting three and missing the Common eider that decided to move back to it's original spot), get some more rarities at Fort DeSoto (a complete bust as I failed to even get the Franklin's gull while missing Western tanager and Red-throated loon), then head to Titusville for more recent rarities (Long-tailed duck, yes, White-winged scoter, no, Iceland gull, yes, Glaucous gull, no, California gull, D'oh! I think I actually did see it, but did not realize that was it until I viewed Michael Brothers' pic later).  Two days of mixed success and bad decisions (See Day Two) and I was falling way behind the front runner, Andy Wraithmell.

For the first eight days, I am more or less tied to south Florida by a very lucrative consulting contract, keeping me far from the strategically important panhandle region.  What's a guy to do?  I decided to turn things to my advantage.  Day Three would be dedicated to knocking out the Miami specialties (Spot-breasted oriole, Red-whiskered bulbul, and White-winged parakeet) and getting some rarities in the area (Bell's vireo, LaSagra's flycatcher, and Neotropic cormorant) while also ticking Bronzed and Shiny cowbirds, Cave swallows, and other species.  Spending so much time in south and central Florida, as I have in Days 1-3, means that Day 6 will have little fruit to bear for my effort.  With most of the resident birds already on my list, the logical thing to do is go for the Miami/Keys specialties, as I would in a Florida Big Year.  What if I already have the Miami specialties while also picking up LaSagra's flycatcher, Neotropic cormorant and a few rarities at Lucky Hammock on Day 3?  Now, I have nothing better to do then go to the keys for species like Mangrove cuckoo, Antillean nighthawk, and, let's think outside the box, take a day trip to Dry Tortugas in early June for easy ticks like Sooty tern and Brown noddy, Masked and Brown booby, and maybe even Black noddy or Red-footed booby.  Those few ticks could make the difference along with a strong effort in the panhandle in the latter days.  After Day 8, the ties to south Florida will be broken.  I can spend more time in the panhandle picking up migrants and winter stuff and catching up to Andy.

Days 1 and 2, while a mix of success and failure, did manage to eliminate much of the need for early starts and birding in the dark.  All the normal owls were on the list.  Rails (with the exception of Black rail) were on as well.  This freed me from being at a marsh at dawn or needing to try for owls.  I still needed Whip-poor-will (piece of cake in early March) and Chuck-will's-widow (I'll be tripping over them on Day 4 and 5.)  More sleep!  Still, I got up early to try for Lesser nighthawk in Everglades National Park (ENP).  It's not easy to get one at night.  Andy Bankert and I got three on a Big Day many years ago.  I could use one of those extra birds on this day.

I opened the day with two null checklists on Research Road, in the darkness.  (Null 1, Null 2) Not good, but not a deal breaker.  I tried Royal Palm for night-herons and bitterns and the possibility of Whip-poor-will.  Still no success.  Not to worry, it was kind of a win/tie situation.  It would have been great to pick up a bonus, but it was not a killer to miss everything.

Dawn spot was Lucky Hammock which has recently hosted Wilson's warbler and Bell's vireo.  Bell's vireo is the bird that put Lucky Hammock on the birding map many years ago.  C.J. Grimes, seasonal ranger at ENP, was showing me around some of the lesser known birding spots in Dade.  There was this hammock on Aerojet Road outside ENP.  Not many knew of it, but the Tropical Audubon Society folks would occasionally go there.  C.J. asked me what "that bird" was.  I saw something flitting in the bushes and thought it was some sort of warbler (I did not see the bill at first.)  When it came into view, I exclaimed, "Bell's vireo!"  I believe it was a life bird for me at the time.  Many more birders would come to see this bird.  More birds were found.  The junky little hammock on the side of the road came to be known as "Lucky Hammock."  The area is officially Frog Pond WMA.  The FWCC has done a fine job of removing exotic vegetation and replacing with natives along the road south of the hammock in what has come to be known as "The Annex."  The Annex is now flush with a variety of native  subtropical vegetation.  This is the go to spot for Alder flycatcher in Florida.  Last fall it even hosted a Willow flycatcher for 50 days straight.

Lucky Hammock list

Unfortunately for my 12 Day Big Year, the warbler and vireo would not appear this day.  Whip-poor-wills sure put on a show as I heard six males singing up a storm from the hammock all the way to the Annex.  The White-tailed kite that appeared during scouting failed to materialize when it counted.  No Swainson's hawks (it's been a bad year for them in the area) but the wintering Broad-winged was present.  Not a great start to Day Three.  This lack of success would hurt my chances of catching Wraithmell.

Next stop was C-111E where Carlos Sanchez previously found several Brown-crested flycatchers.  I found a couple while scouting, so I was reasonably confident I would get them when it mattered.  It did not take me long to hear one; they are conveniently vocal.  I was back on the right track, perhaps.

C-111 E list

Next up was Larry Manfredi's place in Homestead.  This is the go to spot for Shiny cowbird and often Bronzed cowbird.  Right away, I picked up a Baltimore oriole in the top of a tree and ticked several more year birds like White-winged dove, and Purple martin.  It wasn't long before a single male Shiny cowbird flew in.  I had other shots at Bronzed cowbird, so I decided to move to my next spot.

A Glaucous gull was recently found at Mount Trashmore.  That is not only a fantastic Dade County bird, but a chance to make up for the miss on Day Two.  I set up by Gate C of the landfill to take my shot.  I had a little extra time on the schedule at this point, but I did not want to use it up early in the day.  Time management is a valuable skill in competitive birding.  I still had some real buggers to get in Miami, and the traffic can be a bear, even on a Sunday.  Lighting was not great in the early morning, but I scanned the gulls as best I could.  I kept checking a flock of cowbirds along the south side, until finally managed a hulking Bronzed cowbird among the Brown-headed.  No Glaucous gull.  Mixed success reigns again!

Dump list

Next was Matheson Hammock to tick the LaSagra's flycatcher.  Apparently the key to finding this bird is to park at the south end and look for Paul Bithorn and Bryant Roberts.  I spied these guys and others sitting and looking up at the trees.  I walked over and they said, "It's right here."  No need to ask questions, we all know what we are here for.  I looked up and the target bird flew into the light for spectacular views.  Finally, a fully successful stop!  I picked up a couple warblers and Yellow-throated vireo and some pointers on Spot-breasted oriole, then headed off, way ahead of schedule, with more time to invest in Nashville warbler and Spot-breasted oriole the rest of the morning.

Matheson Hammock list

Nashville warbler would eat up much of the borrowed time while I was at A.D. Barnes Park before I decided to cut my losses and leave without.  Last year Spot-breasted orioles nested here and spent much of the fall and winter in the area.  Ticking that species would save a great deal of time, as getting the Bronzed cowbird did before, but it was not to be.  Balance restored, mixed success again.

Miami Springs was the target area for Spot-breasted oriole.  I had no staked out territories at the time.  The drawback of doing this day on March 2 instead of 9 is that the orioles are even less likely to be singing and on territory.  Another try another failure.

Wakodahatchee Wetlands!  I wanted to get there before it was too late.  The place has become immensely popular with photographers and folks who just want to witness the splendor of breeding wading birds.  It was a typical March day in south Florida (clear, sunny, and warm), so the place promised to be crowded.  I barely found a spot to park.  Unlike when scouting, I had very specific info on where exactly the Neotropic cormorant was nesting this time.  It paid off.  I got the bird, tucking it's head under just to be an ass, but eventually poking up to confirm the ID.  I also ticked Purple gallinule, one of those low density species that can sometimes bite you in the butt in a birding competition.  Nice to have it out of the way and always nice to see for any reason.

Wakodahatchee list

Next up was Boynton Inlet where, as I feared, I was not able to park and look for the Common eider.  I had considered skipping this spot altogether, but then the bird reappeared a couple days before.  Perhaps I would pick up a miss from Day 2 after all.  Well, I guess not.  Darn beach weather!

On to Sem Chi Rice Farms where I would run into Corey Callaghan who is doing a Big Year in Palm Beach County.  It was nice to chat with him.  While looking for Yellow-headed blackbird among the 100's of cowbirds and blackbirds, I was finally able to eat lunch.  There was plenty of time left in my schedule since I had gotten out of the coast so quickly.  My only other destinations were the kingbird roost outside STA 5 and STA 5 itself.  I spent all of my extra time and got nothing to show for it.  In past years, I have had White-tailed kite (low density bird) at this spot.  I would likely get both whistling ducks, swamp hen, and maybe snail kite later in the day.  Day 8 will be dedicated to the Everglades Agricultural Area in the morning, where I will get all of these things, but if I can get the residents out of the way, it could open me up to heading to the panhandle at that time where I could get many of the same shorebirds and maybe some other stuff.  Guess not.  Swing and a miss!

Sem Chi list

Back on schedule, I headed out to the kingbird roost on CR 835 in the two miles north of the intersection with Deer Fence Canal.  During scouting there were 14 Scissor-tailed flycatchers and 10 Western kingbirds.  When it counted, I found fewer Western kingbirds and no Scissor-tailed!!!!!  I could handle missing the Cassin's kingbird, the rarity that drew me to this spot, but I really did not want to leave without Scissor-tailed.  Eventually, one Scissor-tailed showed up.  I figured Cassin's would be another casualty of mixed success that plagued my efforts and resigned myself to heading out to STA 5.  There I would attempt the two mile walk (each way) back to the area where the Snail kites were nesting.  Perhaps I could spy them from the edge of the closed area and maybe tick a Peregrine falcon along the way.  Traveling down Deer Fence Canal Road to the entrance of STA 5, I spied two fellow birders who turned out to be Meret Wilson, and another whom I should probably know, but could not place.  They were looking at the kingbirds where they actually were, as opposed to where they were supposed to be, always a good strategy for any birding competition.  I managed to pick up Cassin's kingbird after all among the dozens of tyrannids moving through the orange trees south of the road.

Kingbird Roost

I picked up Black-bellied whistling ducks while looking at the kingbirds.  While walking out to the Snail kite area (I did not make it before darkness set in) I saw a couple flocks of Fulvous whistling ducks, several Purple swamphen, and an American bittern.  Still no Yellow-crowned night-heron after three days of effort.  Not to worry, just seems strange not to have them by now.

STA 5 list

All in all, it was yet another day of mixed success.  Each month, I fall further behind Andy, but I have hopes of making up ground on Day 6 and Days 9-12.  My three day total of 199 is deceptively far ahead of the rest of the pack.  Many species that I have will be picked up by others in the coming months.  The total after Day 6 will give a better measure of where everyone stands as most of the common and resident birds will be ticked at that time.

Looking forward to Days 4 and 5, my strategy will depend on my work schedule.  If we go to double shifts before the end of April, I may have to stay further south.  Ideally, I will hit the panhandle in late April to pick up breeders, migrants, and others, then hit Miami again on Day 5 to pick up more migrants and clean up some species like Spot-breasted oriole and maybe even Antillean nighthawk.  This will free up time to look for caribbean strays on Day 6.  Even if we do start double shifts, I may decide to damn the torpedoes and do the panhandle anyway.

Monday, February 17, 2014

12 Day Big Year Day 2

Day 2, another mediocre performance.  Some rare birds were ticked, some were missed.  A suite of species (the "Sharp-tailed" sparrows) was wrapped up, another ("white-winged" gulls) was incomplete.  Some places (Fort DeSoto) were a bust, some (Sanibel area) went very well, while others (Titusville/Daytona) were a mixed bag.  Plans for future days took shape as the results of this day unfolded.

The original plan was to run from STA 5 in the Clewiston area across to Sanibel and up to Fort DeSoto.  This plan was replaced, thanks to the radiator fan that detached itself from my truck, subsequently cutting into my radiator and my scouting time, by a new plan to go from Sanibel up to Fort DeSoto and across to Titusville, MINWR, and eventually Daytona Beach Shores.  I actually like the new plan.  I decided that I could get the species at STA 5 on Day 3 just as well as Day 2.  Many of the species (whistling ducks, Black rail, swamp hen) will also be available in Day 8 when I will most likely be working the cane fields for shorebirds.  Others (mainly the kingbirds) will be available on Day 3.  The new plan allowed me to include the gull fly-in at Daytona Beach Shores at the prime time, February.  The Miami/Everglades area will now play a big role in Day 3.  Miami hosts a number of resident specialties (Red-whiskered bulbul, Spot-breasted oriole, and White-winged parakeet, and Shiny and Bronzed cowbirds) as well as some regular winter rarities like LaSagra's flycatcher.  Throw in a shot at Neotropic cormorant, Yellow-headed blackbird, and some wintering warblers like Black-throated green, and you've got a solid plan for Day 3.  By knocking off these residents on Day 3, I can focus on the lower keys and Dry Tortugas on Day 6.  Tortugas offers the guarantee of Masked booby, Brown noddy, Sooty and Roseate terns, with the possibility of Brown booby, Black noddy, and even some caribbean stray or a rarity like Red-footed booby.  I will also have time before the boat trip to hit the mangroves for Black-whiskered vireo, Mangrove cuckoo, and afterward a dusk flight of Antillean nighthawk.

So the new plan was in affect.  I managed some scouting in Sanibel and Cape Coral the day before.  Eurasian wigeon had been seen (off and on?) in a pond in Cape Coral.  I wanted to make sure I knew the exact location of the pond and seek out alternative spots while finding a spot or two to search for Burrowing owl the next day.  There are many hundreds of Burrowing owl in Cape Coral.  Burrowing owl is part of a suite of nocturnal species (well sort of, they can be seen in the daylight as well). Checking them off the list will allow more time to sleep on subsequent days.  I found the wigeon in the appointed pond and scoped out a few more alternate spots.  I did not find any owls, but I was not so much worried about that.  I hoped to get back to the pond in the darkness and get the wigeon and owl out of the way.  This would save daylight time for other spots.  Interesting side note, I now have Eurasian but not American wigeon on my Lee County list.

Next spot to scout was Bunche Beach marshes, not the main entrance, but the entrance behind the Publix.  The trail easy enough too find.  Where is the marsh?  Without specific directions, I guessed right, instead of left.  I eventually wandered a bit to the left, but stopped just short of the small expanse of marsh where the Saltmarsh sparrows have been spending the winter.  A phone call to Vince McGrath cleared up the misdirection and later, on a second scouting run, I was found the spot and three "sharp-tailed" sparrows.  At least one of these was a Saltmarsh.  I would have liked to get Nelson's sparrow.  I still need that one for Lee County, but not for the 12 Day Big Year.

One more scouting goal:  Common eider near the Matanzas Pass Bridge.  It was a busy Saturday afternoon and parking was at a premium.  I eventually parked at Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille and checked the sand bar from the deck while eating some of the best fish tacos I've ever had.  45 minutes of watching the bar revealed no eiders.  Closest I could get was a Red-breasted merganser.  An adult Great black-backed gull had no implications for the Big Year, but was new for me in Lee County.  The route was taking shape, but I was not sure how to work in the eider spot.  I was torn between starting (dawn) at the Bunche Beach marshes and then going down to the eider spot and back up to Vince McGrath's place (he has been seeing a Dickcissel at his feeders lately) or going to the eider spot first.  Hitting the eider spot first would eliminate doubling the drive time down there and back.  Starting at the marshes would allow me to walk out in the dark, saving daylight that would be used on the walk out.  Eider spot at dawn seemed the most logical since I could get the sparrows at any time and I would save more time by starting daylight at the southernmost spot on the route.

Scouting Vince's place for Dickcissel was deemed unnecessary, it would either be there or not the next day.  So, I headed to Carefree Ken Burgener's place in Sanibel for the night.  Ken was out in the yard in his carefree shorts and sandals when I arrived.  There was enough daylight for a tour of the place, highlighted by the birding tower that overlooked a swath of mangrove swamp extending to the horizon, owned and managed by the FWCC.  Later, as I unpacked a few things from the truck, I heard an Eastern screech-owl calling in the yard.  A good omen for the coming day, I hoped.


Day 2 begins!  Early, of course, that is my style.  I left the Carefree homestead a little after 0400, first securing Eastern screech-owl for my year list.  I hoped to get Burrowing owl later, piece of cake, and Barred owl at some point, not too difficult in "The Groves" later in the day, to round out my owl list and gain some sleep on future days.  Whip-poor-will would have been nice as well, but they would have to wait for later, or perhaps Day 3, when they would likely be singing on their journey to their northern breeding grounds.

First order of business was to try to get European wigeon in the darkness, saving daylight for other, more fruitful endeavors.  I arrived at the pond and was immediately greeted by the sound of feral Mallards.  Eurekea! the birds are here.  I was not sure if this was their roosting pond or if they went elsewhere for the night.  The soft "quaaack, quaaack, quaaack" emanating from the darkness told me that at least some of yesterday's crowd was present.  The Eurasian wigeon was hanging with the Mottled ducks and the Mallard X Mottled hybrids so prevalent on the west coast of Florida.  There were a lot of these birds present along the north and east shores of the pond.  I could see Muscovy (Florida Feral type) as defined by eBird as well as a few Ring-nekced ducks.  But where the heck is that Eurasian wigeon, so easy to spot in the daylight, but painfully hard to detect in darkness?  Some years ago there were 6 1/2 Eurasian wigeon at MINWR (the 1/2 bird was a male hybrid American X Eurasian wigeon).  I have seen many Eurasian wigeon at the refuge over the years.  I have learned to ID many of the common ducks by their distinctive calls, including American wigeon.  Until that year, when I heard someone mention they heard the calls of Eurasian wigeon in the flock, the thought never occurred to me to listen for Eurasian wigeon.  Thanks for modern technology (phones that are in some ways smarter than myself) I quickly relearned the call of the Eurasian wigeon and heard the little fella as he nervously questioned the intentions of this long-haired visitor in the night.  Success!  A good omen, I hoped.

Cape Coral EUWI spot

Plenty of darkness left to search for Burrowing owl (I had no spot, but that was not a problem given there are 100's of Burrowing owls dotting the landscape in Cape Coral).  Burrowing owls are most common in areas where developed lots are interspersed with undeveloped lots, much like the area around where the wigeon was found.  No success the day before or the morning of, so I resorted to the smart phone.  I used Birds Eye on my phone to find owl sightings in nearby public places.  I picked out a local park and plotted a route.  Along the way, I spied several white PVC pipes and a sign indicating the presence of Burrowing owls.  I stopped and within a few minutes, I was serenaded by one of the owls who, like the ducks, questioned my motives.  Success, again!  Although not a particularly difficult accomplishment, but an accomplishment nonetheless.


Nice to have time on my hands.  I had plenty of darkness, but no more targets in the darkness.  The eider spot was up next.  I stopped for gas for the truck and coffee for me and settled in to the now nearly empty parking area under the bridge.  Yellow-crowned night-herons outnumber Black-crowned in this area, so surely I would get one of them on the way to the roost as daylight approached.  Nope.  I got three Black-crowned and not Yellow.  It's very unlikely that I would go twelve days without Yellow-crowned night-heron, but then again I completed Day 1 without ticking Fish crow and European starling.

Daylight crept in, and I got my Fish crows, lots and lots of Fish crows.  To the west, there was a roost of several hundred.  Most of the sand bar, where the eider likes to rest when not feeding, was in view from my spot on the pier, under the bridge.  I could not see the eider on the bar or anywhere in the nearby waters.  Keeping tabs on time is very important in these endeavors.  Many a Big Day has been foiled by an unwillingness to let a species go when it does not show in the allotted time.  I bought some time by getting the wigeon early, but I did not want to burn that time right away.  There would be time for that if I ran into traffic issues later.  23 minutes seemed enough time.  No eider.  On to Bunche Beach marshes.

Common eider spot

Bunche Beach marshes was a quick stop, at least now that I knew the proper location.  I got to the spot, took a few minutes to find the sparrow, and got back.  13 minutes and mission accomplished.  I decided not to spend time looking for shorebirds or Mangrove cuckoo on Day 2.  I would count on other opportunities down the line.  This day I would spend my time on species like Western tanager, Franklin's gull, scoters, white-winged gulls, etc.   These would not be available on subsequent days.

Bunche Beach Marshes

There was plenty of time to look Dickcissel at Vince McGrath's place.  When I arrived, the feeders were empty.  Not to worry, the birds likely come and go all morning.  Some buntings crept in.  Indigos for the most part.  No House sparrows present.  Dickcissels often join the House sparrows when spending time in our state, especially in winter.  Common grackles were in the vicinity.  Trouble brewing!  The grackles made their way closer and then descended on the feeders sending the buntings scattering for cover.  Buggers!  I was wavering on whether to cut and run or use up some of my borrowed time from my earlier success.  After a few minutes, the grackles began to move off and the buntings trickled back to the feeders.  What's that?  A House sparrow is chirping in the trees above.  What to do, what to do?  I decided to stay the course a little longer.  I didn't need to wait for the Dickcissel to actually come to the feeder.  Heard birds count.  Dickcissel has fairly distinct call notes, but would it call for me?  Prior to my stop, I reminded myself of the calls of Dickcissel through the magic of my smart phone.  Homework pays.  I heard one of the calls from the hedge behind Vince's place.  I  reaffirmed my ID with the phone, then left with three of four targets for the southwest.  Not bad.  As a bonus, I had two House finches flying overhead.  Not a year bird, but a county bird for Lee County.

Vince's Place

Fort DeSoto gets an F!  In retrospect, maybe I should have just skipped it and taken off for Titusville and Daytona Beach Shores.  I had considered that option, but since I was ahead of schedule and I had a pretty good chance of getting Franklin's gull, cutting the strings attaching me to landfills on Days 10 and 11, I pushed on with the plan to hit Fort DeSoto.  If only we could see hindsight in the present.  Western tanager is one of the targets for Fort DeSoto.  I have a long history of unsuccessful chases of this species.  I've actually found more than I have successfully chased.  Frugivores, such as tanagers, are inherently difficult to find.  They have no need to hunt their food, literally subsisting on low-hanging fruit.  Thus, they spend most of their time sitting peacefully, out of view, only coming into view when they feel the need to process more food.  As I drove into the Gulf Pier parking lot, I saw a crowd of people looking into the tree of low hanging fruit where the tanager is most often seen.  Hopes are high.  I headed over and found that the folks were looking at the tree but not the tanager.  Hopes are not so high.  The folks said they had not seen the bird for some time.  Hopes are low.  I looked for a few minutes, then set out to look for other likely tanager haunts.  A scattered few Ficus trees held fruit and thus the promise of tanagers, but not the much needed tanager.  I went as far as the beach where I spied a group of Laughing gulls near the Bay Pier, where the Franklin's gull has been sighted all winter.  That gave me some hope for later.

There were rumors of a Red-throated loon, sighted from the Gulf Pier.  I had some time, so I wandered over and saw a few Common loons and other birds offshore as well as a flock of gulls and terns on the shore.  No odd loons or gulls to be had.

One more shot at the tanager, one more miss of the tanager, but found out about a recent sighting of White-winged scoter in the channel outside the park.

Surely I would at least get the Franklin's gull on the way out.  When I got over to the Bay Pier, some woman was wandering along the shoreline picking through the wrack and scaring away all the gulls.  I sorted through the remaining birds and watched the birds flying offshore.  No Franklin's gull.  Fort DeSoto's report card:  F-   The best vantage point for the White-winged scoter was the Boat Ramp on the northwest side of the park.  I decided against visiting, in the interest of saving time.  I would have other shots at all of the Fort DeSoto target species later in the year.  Buggers!

Fort DeSoto


A 12 Day Big Year is all about cutting strings.  Strings that attach you to certain regions, certain habitats, or groups of species.  I cut the strings that attach me to salt marsh habitats looking for "sharp-tailed" sparrows by getting Nelson's sparrow on Day 1 and Saltmarsh sparrow on Day 2.  I cut the string that attached me to Burrowing owl by spending some time in Cape Coral in the darkness.  Later, I hope to cut the stings attached to owls by rounding out the list with the easiest owl species, Barred owl.  So many strings, it can be easy to loose track.  Short-tailed hawk is a string that I was not necessarily worried about.  I would be running Day 3 in Miami where I had a good shot at them, even though many will have left for the breeding grounds by then.  I knew they are at Sawgrass Park in Pinellas County, but that is way too far out of the way to try on Day 2.  Still, if I miss them on Day 3, there may not be many other shots.  Day 4 will likely be centered around Fort DeSoto. Hitting Sawgrass Park on that day would not be out of the question, but I would rather not have to deal with that possibility.  The strings you cut, the freer you are to plan and execute.  Sawgrass Park is right next to I-275 which is on the road to Titusville, but there is no convenient exit to the park.  Heading north on said highway, I spied a dark hawk circling low over the woods.  Dark morph Short-tailed hawk!  Right at Sawgrass Park.  How about that?  I visited Sawgrass Park and got Short-tailed hawk and took no time at all out of my schedule.  Snip!

On the way across the state, I was struck by the amount of development sprawling out from Orlando.  Another string, Wild turkey, is common in the woods along SR 417 and SR 528, where development has not pushed them out.  Whenever I passed a suitable area and traffic was far enough off, I scanned for turkeys.  Finally, near Narcoossee, I spied a flock of toms along the edge of a retention pond.  Whew!  Northern bobwhite is another string, closely associated with Wild turkey and uncut as of yet.  I may well get them while searching for other targets throughout the year.  Hopefully I will get them in the vicinity of STA 5 on Day 3.   Day 5 will be dedicated to breeders in north Florida.  It's likely that I will run into turkey and quail at that time, but the less strings, the better.  More time for searching out White-rumped sandpipers and local breeders like Wood thrush, Swainson's warbler, etc.

Two more strings, Monk parakeet and Nanday parakeet, were on the list.  The general plan is to be back in the Fort DeSoto area on Day 4.  I will have more chances then, but cutting strings when you get the chance is a very good thing.  I picked up Nanday conure en route to Fort DeSoto, but Monk proved harder to come by.  Nandays are the less widely distributed of this species pair, so I was grateful to have them on the list.  I stopped at the House Sparrow Spot on Tierra Verde.  Andy Bankert and I used to run Big Days from Tallahassee to Sarasota or vice versa.  It was a great route, one of the most productive we had, but it was decidedly House sparrow poor.  The route was a long one, too long to spend the entire span of daylight hours without a gas stop, so we decided to make our necessary gas stop a strategic stop.  House sparrows are usually around the 7-11 in Tierra Verde.  I got these on Day one, at a gas stop near Capps in the panhandle.  However, Monk parakeets often hang out on the wires and in the palms near the House Sparrow Spot.  I would need gas at some point on the trip, so why not the House Sparrow Spot?  It was far enough along that I would not need more gas until after dark.  The Monk parakeets were not on board with the plan.  Perhaps we should have synchronized watches.  No worries, I hope, I will likely be in Miami for Day 3 where surely I will tick them off.

House Sparrow Spot


Titusville ahoy!  Three Long-tailed ducks off Kennedy Point Park, just waiting to go on my list.  Upon my arrival, a couple of birders, sans scopes, were looking for the same.  There is a lot of water off Kennedy Point Park, but conditions were good for viewing birds.  Ripping northeast winds were blowing the birds right up to the park, hopefully not past it.  Scattered flocks of scaup, including a few Greaters, were nearby.  Long-tailed ducks often join flocks of scaup in Florida in winter.  The sans scope birders gave up shortly after I arrived.  I made my second scan of the lagoon.  The ticking of the infernal internal clock, the alarm of which would signal the time to give up on the target and move on.  White-winged scoter and white-winged gulls loomed on the horizon.  Scanning, ticking, scanning, ticking,  GOOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!!!!  All three Long-tailed ducks popped up on a wave, into view, and onto my list.  I looked around for the sans scopers but they had long gone.  I finished my eBird checklist, searching the nearby marina for Spotted sandpiper (another string?) and headed up to Max Brewer Causeway to hunt White-winged scoter.

Kennedy Point Park

White-winged scoters have been making an impressive showing in Florida this year as have the other two scoter species, even Long-tailed duck for that matter.  One White-winged scoter has been sighted repeatedly off the causeway leading to MINWR.  I saw the bird during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  There might be other shots at this species on later days (Day 10 or 11 pelandgic birding or Day 11 or 12 ca. Alligator Point) but this being the scarcest of the three, I'd rather cut the string now. The northeast winds and the setting sun presented some logistical challenges for duck hunting from the causeway.  I stopped initially on the west side of the lagoon, north side of the bridge to take advantage of the sun angle.  This area was buffeted by the rather strong winds and I did not see any numbers of ducks or single scoters.  I decided to head across the bridge to Parrish Park on the causeway.  Light angles would not be so favorable if the birds drifted too far toward the west shore.  There were several groups of scaup on the south side of the road, as was expected under the circumstances, however, I found no scoters among them.  Time was running short (or so I thought.)  The clang of the internal alarm sounded.  White-winged scoter hopes would be deferred to Days 10-12, unless I managed to catch a migrant at the gull fly-in.

Parrish Park

Results of Day 2 would have implications for many days ahead, most notably Days 10 and 11.  There are a number of strings holding me to the east coast in the fall.  Days 10 and 11 in particular are good days to pick up species like jaegers, scoters, Franklin's gull, and Common tern.  They are also good days to be in the panhandle where I have a better shot at rarities and migrant songbirds.  Some species, e.g. scoters, Common tern, and Franklin's gull to some extent, can be found in the panhandle as well as the east coast.  Jaegers are easily on the east coast, not so much on the gulf coast, thus I would very much like to cut those strings on Day 2.  Both of the expected species of jaegers are present off Florida's east coast in winter.  Parasitic jaegers are often sighted, harassing the gulls off Daytona Beach Shores as the gulls search for one last meal before settling down for the night.  The strong northeast winds made it even more likely that I would get Parasitic or even Pomarine jaeger which tend to stay a little further away from the beach.

Frank Rendon Park is the best entry point to the beach for the gull fly-in.  From there you can walk north or south a mile or so and see most of the gulls.  Beach driving is allowed in this area.  I'm not a fan of beach driving, but in the interest of a Big Year, I might consider it.  My dilemma was solved by the same strong northeast winds that promised to deliver jaegers to my list.  The high tide was so high the county was not allowing vehicles on the beach.  I had time to walk about two miles of beach; actually more, as it turned out.  Gulls were scattered in clumps north and south.  These birds fly in from the Volusia County Landfill and stop over on the beach before heading offshore to roost for the night.  Sundays, as in this day, there is limited garbage collection, so the numbers at the fly-in are lower and the birds more scattered.  Still, there were plenty to look through on what narrow strip of beach the tides left for me.  I was telling myself that Glaucous gull would stand out from the other gulls (big honking white gull among the smaller Herring, Ring-billed, and Laughing gulls) unlike the smaller white-winged gull, Iceland, when I noticed a first year Iceland gull staring back at me from 10 meters away.  Half a string cut.  Well, not really a string at all.  This would be the only likely day that I would have a shot at these species, thus the implications for future days are nearly none.  I stopped often to look through the gulls feeding offshore for jaegers, who, rather than catch their own food, would rather take food caught by the their smaller, less powerful cousins, the gulls and terns.  I did not find any.  It was time for a critical decision.  The success of a Big Day/Big Year can sometimes hang on the decisions made at critical points.  This could be one, time will tell.  I had some daylight left (I had actually misundercalculated the amount).  I found one of my targets on the beach, Iceland gull, but not the other, Glaucous gull.  I had failed to cut the most significant strings, the jeagers.  There were more gulls up and down the beach that I could not see from foot.

The options are:

1)  Drive A1A up and down the beach looking for other entry points closer to the other groups of gulls.
2)  Head down to Lighthouse Point Park to check for gulls and jeagers.
3)  Stay at Frank Rendon Park and do a pelandgic watch in hopes of getting a jaeger or two or even a fly by scoter or maybe even a kittiwake, wouldn't that be nice?
4)  Head to Shiloh Marsh where I might have a shot at American bittern, Short-eared owl, Black rail, and, after dark, a shot at Whip-poor-will before heading to "The Groves" and then home.

Did I mention that I misundercalculated the amount of daylight left?  If not for that, I may have gone with options 1 or 2.  As it was, I went with 4.

Frank Rendon Park

I exited the highway on old SR 5A, the northernmost exit in Brevard County, and headed across to US 1, en route to the Shiloh Marsh entrance to MINWR.  It was at this point that I realized there was more daylight than I had thought.  Another string had been flitting through my mind all day.  Florida scrub-jay is not particularly difficult to find. if you are in the right habitat.  My preferred routes for the remaining days do not include habitat or even the range of Florida scrub-jay.  Day 10 is looking more and more likely to include MINWR and the east coast, given that I did not cut the strings for jeagers.  If I somehow get jaegers on the July pelagic trip with Marine Science Center (likely Day 7), unlikely but possible, I would not want to be tied to the east coast by Florida scrub-jay.  Was it a bad decision to head south and abandon the beaches with so much light left?  Perhaps it was.  Too late to go back now, but maybe I can mitigate with Florida scrub-jay.  The Scottsmoor Flatwoods Sanctuary (Brevard County EEL property), only a few miles south on US 1, could cut the string tying me to Florida's only endemic species.  I arrived at the gate.  I checked to make sure I had my trusty scrub jay calls on the iPod.  I set off on the trail.  I happened to look back at the wires.  There sat a Florida scrub jay.  Nice!  I wish they were all like that.

Scottsmoor Scrub

Vehicle traffic is restricted to the first couple miles of Shiloh Marsh during the winter months to allow hunting earlier in the winter and for the ducks to have some relative peace the rest of the winter as they rest and fuel up for their spring migration.  On the way to the gate, where you can park and walk further if you like, I scoped out spots for a twilight vigil.  During the search, I added some insignificant species to the Big Year like Roseate spoonbill, and American avocet while pushing the day list over 100, finally.  I picked out a great spot to sit, watch, and listen as the sun dropped below the horizon on it's schedule, not mine.  Fresh water impoundment marsh behind me where I would get American bittern, unimpounded tidal brackish marsh in front of me where I would get Black rail calling and Short-eared owl cruising.  Yellow-crowned night-heron would fly by on the way out to their feeding grounds.  Barred owls would call from the hammock across the marshes.  Well at least Barred owls called.  The rest did not get the new plan.  Another F?  Perhaps.

Shiloh Marsh great vista?

One more stop.  There is a private road leading to a private fish camp along Turnbull Creek.  It was at this intersection that I picked my spot where the Whip-poor-will would be.  The Whip-poor-will must have picked another spot 'cause I got no response to my iPod.  Another null checklist in eBird.

Shiloh Marsh Whip spot

So that was it.  I decided to defer Whip-poor-will, the only reasonable target left, to Day 3.  Sleep would be much better as I headed on to work the next day in Clewiston.  Plans for Day 3 and beyond were beginning to swirl in my head.  In hindsight, perhaps I should have skipped Fort DeSoto and even Titusville.  All three scoters are being seen in the St. Augustine area as well as Long-tailed duck.  Without Fort DeSoto and Titusville and with a correct calculation of daylight time, I may have had time to get up there.  Live and learn.  Stay tuned as the adventure continues.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Planning Day Two, Three, Six, Five, Four, and ????

My little brain has been all abuzz.  Days Two, Three, Six, and to some extent Four and Five are taking shape.  I think I can blast out of Sanibel with a few key species and still have time for Fort DeSoto and Titusville and get to Daytona Beach Shores for the gull fly in.  Mangrove cuckoo at Sanibel may not be so key as I thought.  I can get them in June when I plan to do Miami and the Keys.  But wait, I'll be going through Miami on the way to Flamingo to get Black rail and Saltmarsh sparrow.  But wait, I can get Saltmarsh sparrow at Sanibel while I am skipping the shorebirds at Bunche Beach in favor of Fort DeSoto, thus the long drive to Flamingo on Day Three, would be only for Black rail.  But maybe I could better spend my time on Day Three in the Miami and Homestead area picking up Miami specialties like White-winged parakeet, Red-whiskered bulbul, and Spot-breasted oriole as well as Bronzed and Shiny cowbirds and maybe a Brown-crested flycatcher.  Why do that when I am planning to do Miami and the Keys on Day Six?  Well, if I can get these out of the way on Day Three, it opens the door for a day trip to Dry Tortugas where I should be able to pick up Masked and Brown booby, Sooty tern, Brown noddy, Roseate tern, and maybe Black noddy or some oddball rarity.  I would still have time before boarding the boat to look for Mangrove cuckoo and Black-whiskered vireo, and a few hours after the boat docks to get Antillean nighthawk.  Days Four and Five are still a bit fuzzy.  I may be working double shifts so it will be harder to get far away from south Florida, but I plan to do a Jacksonville to panhandle run for Day Five, either May 4 or 11.  I hope to get a few Caribbean migrants early on the east coast, hopefully Connecticut warbler in the mix, then get the panhandle coast in time to catch the trans-gulf migrants, whatever may be left at that point, on the coast.  I can catch the breeders in the mix, I hope.  Shorebirds like White-rumped sandpiper will be important pickups at this time.  Day Four will likely be in the Fort DeSoto area concentrating on trans-gulf migrants, which makes me wonder how much time should be spent on Day Two outside of Western tanager and Franklin's gull.  I will have time to do the shorebirds on Day Four.

Let's see what happens!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

12 Days of Plan B's

A glimpse into my mind:

Day 2 and Day 3 swirling around in my brain.  Day 2 on February 9th, I would do STA 5 to Sanibel to Fort DeSoto.  Meh.  I didn't have a great feeling about that one.  I couldn't help but think that the targets at STA 5 (kingbirds, whistling-ducks, kites, etc.) would be there later.  I want to include Neotropic cormorant and LaSagra's flycatcher in the year, but I only planned to do Miami and southeast Florida on Day 6 (probably June 1).  Also, I wanted to work Daytona Beach Shores into a route.  My truck stepped in to save the day.  It's troubles made it impossible for me to scout STA 5 properly.  Eureka!  I can skip STA 5 this time, get the rarities in Sanibel area in the morning, head up to Fort DeSoto for a few rarities, and bolt across to Merritt Island NWR for the White-winged scoter and Long-tailed duck then up to Daytona Beach Shores for rare gulls.  STA 5 will be deferred to Day 3, again on the 9th.  Afterward, I plan to head over to Wakodahatchee Wetlands for Neotropic cormorant and down to Miami to hopefully get Nashville warbler and LaSagra's flycatcher then maybe some cowbirds at Larry's place and off to Coastal Prairie Trail for Black rail, and maybe Saltmarsh sparrow, Short-eared owl, Lesser nighthawk, and hopefully Violet-green swallow.

Scouting will determine if I spend more time in Sanibel and skip Fort DeSoto or even if I skip MINWR and Daytona Beach Shores.  The next couple days will reveal a lot.  The plan may even change during the day.  I can't wait!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

12 Days of Planning

I have had little time to plan and strategize my 12 Day Big Year so far.  Much of what I do will be dictated by my schedule.  February, I have the 9th (my intended day) and the 17-23.  I could get back to the panhandle during the latter period, but I would rather spend that time around the homestead, given how little time I will have there in the coming months.  The winter stuff in the panhandle will be getting squirrelly by then anyway, so a southwest strategy may be best.  The idea is to knock out kingbirds, Burrowing owl, shorebirds, some parrots, and other rarities an maybe the pineland trio of Bachman's sparrow, Brown-headed nuthatch, and Red-cockaced woodpecker.  Knocking out a suite like the pineland birds allows me to avoid spending valuable time in these habitats at a later time.  In March, I'm not sure.  Tricky month, that March.  I might tie in the Big Bend area in conjunction with the Nature Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  April is a bit of a conundrum. I have three days free, 1, 6, and 27.  It seems likely that I will head to the panhandle for the 27th and try for migrants and local breeders.  Another option would be to use the 11th when we make our way out to the tortugas in the deeper waters to try for Audubon's shearwater and Bridled tern.  However, I intend to use Michael's July pelagic trip sponsored by the Marine Science Center to get the same species and hopefully many more.  Perhaps a bunch of us will be on that trip.  May presents some challenges as well.  Do I do my Miami/Keys run then or save it for June 1st.  May 4th is the likely date, good timing, perhaps for White-rumped sandpiper and Connecticut warbler.  Later in the month I will be concentrating on BBA II activities, so it seems best to do the 4th, but where?  If I do Miami at that time then what's on for June?  June is better for the Miami specialties, so it is likely that I may be back in the panhandle again for May or maybe somewhere else?  We shall see.  August may be the cane fields of Palm Beach, but then again, I may have all that stuff by then or have at least a shot in the panhandle where other stuff may arrive.  Panhandle again?  September, I don't know.  Probably panhandle or west coast to maximize chances of getting western strays, but I will be in the keys for the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival at the end of the month.  The last few days of September are probably best.  After that, it will come down to what holes are left in the list.  Likely the panhandle will be needed.  This is where Elliott and Andy have an advantage over me.  They are living there and can scout and plan much better.  I will give it a good shot and maybe perfect my strategy next year.  I will still be at the mercy of my schedule in the first 6-8 months, but the fall will be a chance to catch up.  No mater what happens, it will be a lot of fun, if only for 12 days.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Cardinal Trick

I have been BUSY with festivals over the last couple weeks and haven't had the energy to devote to blogging.  I am dragging a bit still, but I had to churn this one out.

Dee and I do a Pish-free birding trip (third trip on page) every year at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  We meet at the Hammock Trails and bird by ear, not using recorded calls or "pishing" to attract the birds.  Lighting was absolutely awful for this trip as the skies were completely overcast, giving a bright white background to the crowns of the trees as we gazed up at the few songbirds we could find.  Despite this, we managed to eek out a few birds and the group got to experience first hand how frustrating it can be to try to pick out individual birds in quickly moving flocks.

We were heading back to the parking lot when I decided to show people, "The Cardinal Trick."  Northern cardinals are resident in Florida and maintain territories year round.  Many of our other resident songbirds will form mixed species groups, when they are not breeding, and meander about the woods.  In fall and winter they are joined by many more songbirds that winter or migrate through our fair state.  These flocks are not territorial and many flocks may move through a given point during the course of a day.  The cardinals are not amused.  When a flock moves into their territory, they will give agitated chip notes to let the flock know of their displeasure.  The flock pays no mind and the cardinals are not very effective at dissuading them, but they are a big help to birders.  The mixed flocks usually give themselves away with contact calls or flitting movements.  However, sometimes the flocks are quite silent and difficult to see.  That's when the Cardinal Trick comes in handy.  So anyway, we were heading back to the parking lot when I noticed a happy pair of cardinals on the side of the trail.  I stopped the group and was about to point out that these cardinals indicated that there was not a flock in the area, when the male cardinal began to chip in an unhappy way.  Soon after, a Blue-gray gnatcatcher called and flew across the trail.  Then another, then another, then a Tufted titmouse, and many others.  The Cardinal Trick right there in front of us!  Nice way to end the trip.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Violet-green swallow!!

A few days back, some out of state birders found Florida's first documented Violet-green swallow on the Coastal Prairie Trail in Everglades National Park.  Given that it is January and the bird is at the end of the state, it is likely that the bird will be here all winter.  The bad news, for us who want it for their Florida lists, is that there is a lot of habitat for swallows and we humans have a hard time traversing said habitat.

I decided to take a shot at the bird last Monday after a few people were successful in refinding the bird.     Violet-green swallow is a good excuse to go see one of my favorite places and hopefully see some other birders in the process.

Not one to miss an opportunity to do some opportunistic county listing, I hit the SW 173rd street Canoe Launch on Biscayne Bay and added Horned grebe and Black scoter to my Dade list.  Also, I dipped ,again, on House finch at Bill Sadowski Park, which was closed today, so I had to look from the road.  That little hiccup in taming apparently caused me to miss the party, because everyone left right before I got there.  I think I saw Wes and Dotty leave, and there are a couple other folks coming out of the trail when I headed out.  I gathered that everyone had seen the bird and split.  Apparently not, as I heard they all gave up with without THE bird.

I got to the appointed spot and took up my post.  Far in the west end of the prairie I spied some Tree-like swallows, cousins of the Violet-green swallows.  I thought about staying and waiting, but I thought, "I drove 200 miles to get here, I might as well walk another."  So, I headed west on the trail and eventually caught up with the swallows, and what do you know, there was THE swallow.  I noted the shorter tail, nearly square-looking in fact.  I caught several horizontal views a the bird worked right in front of me.  The white face, extending up behind the eye and white wrapping up the edge of the base of the tail were clear.  The emerald green back was on display in flashes a couple of times, but I never got great views of that.  I saw the birds in Colorado a few years ago, but this was a first for Florida for me.

After a few minutes of alone time with my quarry, I decided to walk more of the trail and check out this unique seldom flooded salt marsh habitat.  I needed Nelson's sparrow for Monroe, and eventually I got good close looks at one.  The guys who found the swallow in the first place found many Nelson's and Saltmarsh sparrows as well as hearing about a dozen Black rails.  In the afternoon, I did not find nearly so much.

Mission accomplished, I headed on to try more county birds.  I checked Eco Pond which has never been the same since the hurricanes of 2004.  The pond is the only source of fresh water in the area and thus attracts a different suite of birds and animals.  At least it used to.  There were a couple coots and grebes and a single Northern shoveler.  I have made the run through the Flamingo Marina area many times in the past in hopes of adding Bronzed cowbird on my Monroe list without success.  Add one more unsuccessful run.  I noted a clump of cattails near Bear Lake Road, a sign of fresh water and maybe habitat for American bittern which I also lack in Monroe.  Mental note taken.  Mrazek Pond, or as I like to call it, "Mr. Azek Pond", is a great spot for ducks in Monroe, especially those with a preference for fresh water.  Teal of both the common species often occur here, and I hoped to get a Gadwall for Monroe.  There were lots of teal, mostly Green-winged, but no Gadwall.

I booked a room in Florida City before I headed out, so I was in no hurry to get back home (I could not get a refund) so I decided to bird my way out of the park.  West Lake (in Dade County) held some locally rare birds this winter (Greater scaup and Redhead.)  I hoped maybe their cousin the Canvasback might make an appearance this day.  It was not to be, but there were still two Redhead and one Greater scaup.  I was running out of daylight, and I wanted to get to Research Road to look for American woodcock.  American woodcock is not known to breed regularly in south Florida, or do they?  Males are often heard displaying throughout central and south Florida, including the pine lands along Research Road in Everglades National Park in the winter months.  Are they breeding?  It's hard to tell.  They have been documented nesting, at least once, at Corkscrew Swamp in Collier County.  At any rate, I have tried many times to add this species to my Dade list.  This night looked to be my best shot.  It was later in winter, many of my attempts before were in December, I was going to be there around dusk, they are usually more active at dusk than dawn.  The birds are usually found in the more recently burned areas of the pine lands.  There is a Boy Scout camp on the south side of the road and the area east of there has been burned in the last year, so this is where I staked my hopes.  I had help this time as ______ from California was also looking.  He heard one first, and summoned me to where he was.  After a few minutes, we hear the "peent" call and eventually the twittering flight display.

After this successful search, I headed to the motel for the night and made plans to come back the next day and try to repeat my success with friends this time.

I got down to Flamingo to try for Eastern whip-poor-will and American bittern (see mental note.)  After stopping and listening for whip at Rowdy Bend Trail and getting only Barred owl, I got Whip at Bear Lake Road and waited for a bittern to come out of the marsh.  As dawn chorus started, I saw a night-heron coming from the south.  Or was it?  I put the binocs up and I had American bittern on my Monroe list.

I could see the light on at the ranger station at the camp (you have to go through the campground to get to the trail) so I headed over.  They had closed the B Loop, so we had to walk a bit further to the tail.  Angel and Mariel were delayed in arriving, but Paul Sykes was on the way.  I headed out to the appointed spot to look again and saw no swallows at all this time.  I had already seen the swallow and had both of the "Sharp-tailed" sparrows for the county list, so I did not see the need to continue to walk the trail.  I awaited the arrival of others and kept my vigil.  31 minutes later, I decided I needed to move on toward home, and Paul arrived.  We exchanged pleasantries and I headed back to the truck.  Once back at the truck, Paul called to say he heard a Black rail.  I heard the same or another bird before. Not a county bird, but pretty cool to hear.

I made another quick check of Mr. Azek Pond with about the same results as before, but much worse lighting in the morning.

I was ready to get home, but I just had to take a few more opportunities to list.  I took another shot at Barnes for House finch, NO, and another shot at the canoe launch, nothing (good thing I went the day before!) before heading up to Palm Beach Gardens to look for a recently photographed Redhead in Palm Beach County.  There has been a Nashville warbler at A.D. Barnes Park for some time.  Barnes was right along the way.  Even though I'd be there later in the week as part of the Everglades Birding Festival, I decided to check it out.  It took awhile, but I eventually caught up with the bird.  TICK!

The Redhead in Palm Beach Gardens was in a canal between Lowe's and Costco.  Google Earth showed me that there were may alternate hiding places for the Redhead in the form of ponds on either side of the canal.  I decided to park at the Costco and try my luck from the Norhthlake Blvd bridge.  I quickly spotted nothing much at all to the south.  to the north there was about 30 Ring-necked ducks.  The Redhead was photographed with Ring-necked ducks!  So, I scanned and scanned and scanned while the birds swam and dove and preened and were all Ring-necked ducks.  Darn it.  A few other Ring-necked ducks flew by and I scrutinized every one for Redheads, but none were to be had.  I even hiked south along the canal to check a couple of ponds south of Lowe's, but no Redhead to be seen.  I suspect it is still in the area and I will take a few more shots.  Today was not the day.

Very enjoyable couple of days.  Now, I'm off to the Everglades Birding Festival for a few days.