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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.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Jackson County CBC

Second day of CBC's in a row and not in a good way.  After freezing in the wind and cold the day before, we were at it again.  This time it was not so windy and the temperature was a mere 32 degrees.  Armed with gloves and a heavy jacket this time, it seemed downright balmy.

This was the third time I was able to do the Jackson County CBC.  The first was the very first Jackson CBC and the second was just last year.  This time Rob Williams of Tallahassee was driving again and Jim Armstrong from Brevard County was with us for his first CBC ever.  The count circle is primarily farm lands and small towns.  Roadside birding is how we do it.  It has one of the only known populations of Horned lark in Florida and we had one of the best spots for them in our area.  Our traditional starting point for the count is on SR 71 adjacent to Baxter Bay, south of the town of Malone.  This is usually the only wet spot in our territory and our only hope of getting rails ducks for the day.  This year, after an unusually wet spring, summer, and fall, there would be several wet spots and ducks around.

Red-winged blackbirds abound in the farmlands here as it is more an extension of Alabama than anything normal for Florida.  Many flocks flew in from a distant unseen roost as we walked up and down the road seeking better views into the water in the bay.  Wood ducks were the only ducks we would see here and there were many American coots and Common gallinules as well.  Undoubtedly there are some rails and wrens in the marshes around the edges of the bay, but they are too far from the road side to adequately check without trespassing.  A single Greater yellowlegs foraged on the heavily grazed edges of the wetland, not a Lesser as I had hoped.  Lesser yellowlegs are hard to come by in winter in this area.  Most seem to go coastal or further south for the winter.  We tallied 42 species, plus our only chicken of the day before heading off to other stops.  list

Cell phone coverage is lacking in this area, at least for my phone, so I was forced to use BirdLogNA offline many times.  This led to some mis-entered bird species as I hit the button too quickly when punching in alpha codes.  BirdLog allows the user to begin typing the name of a bird or a four letter alpha code and it matches with a species from the underlying filter.  When working off line, the underlying filter is every freaking bird on the planet.  Therefore, I get some matches I'm not used to and some exciting, yet temporary, reports.  Eventually, I was able to get everything squared away.  I have all of our morning stops recorded in eBird from last year's run, but I cannot get to them without 3G coverage, so we had to guess at a couple stops.  I did not realize that I had written them out, old school, on my DeLorme Gazeteer until later.

We stumbled along the route, getting birds along the way.  Not much of great interest, not even larks.  Last year, we got 14 Horned larks in three different locations.  This year, we would go through the entire territory seeing hundreds and American pipits, but not seeing or hearing a single lark.  It was not until we hit Concord Road for the second time, that I finally heard one singing in the distance.  When we went up to Leo Road, nearer to where the bird appeared to be, so Jim might get a look, I heard a strange yet familiar call coming from the fields.  The calls rose and passed overhead, moving north toward Alabama.  "Chew" calls and dry rattle calls finally rattled my brain enough to recognize Lapland longspurs!  Three of them.  Horned lark and Lapland longspur in the same day is a common occurrence in most states, but in Florida, that is a red letter day.

I don't have time or energy to go into all the details of all the stops we made that day.  Some highlights were the intersection of Leo and Concord Roads earlier in the day where I heard our only Golden-crowned kinglets of the day.  We stopped to watch and listen to a sizable flock that moved through and disappeared in a matter of minutes.  Talk about timing!  Along Leo Road we stopped at a farm gate with some wet spots and piles of mulch where our only Least sandpiper of the day made the acquaintance of some Killdeer.  We missed Fox sparrow at the spot where we had three last year.  A recent timber harvest at Concord Road and Neal's Landing Road gave us some nice sparrows, but it was late in the morning and activity was a bit slow.  Later we would hit the pond along Neal's Landing road and score a bunch of ducks, right before we found the lark and longspurs.

Our last stop was back at our first stop where we hoped for a few more new ones for the day.  An Anhinga was present this time, somewhat unusual for this part of the county.  We ended the day with 80 species and chicken.  Not bad for an inland count.

Lake Seminole-Torreya CBC

What a day for a CBC?!  I have not been that cold in Florida before and hopefully since.  Temperature was about 28 at dawn, which is not so bad, but wind was about 20 MPH off the lake.  I did not bring my heavy jacket and I had no gloves, so it was quite a miserable morning.

This was an entirely new CBC.  I hoped to get up to the area and scope it out beforehand, but I had to guide someone the day before and I did not even get out of town until 4PM.  We were playing by frozen ear.  Three Rivers State Park was one of the highlights of our areas, We had about 90 minutes of good daylight before the park would open.  Our territory extended up the west side of Lake Seminole and, not knowing the layout of the layout of the rest of the area, we decided to scope out the marshes and lake edge despite the bad light angle.  We hoped to get some rails or wrens and watch the Red-winged blackbirds left their amazing roost for the day.  Rail calls went unanswered, but we did get a Marsh wren at one stop, a rare bird for the area and Jackson County tick for me.

Once the park opened up, we went in and checked the lakefront which was COLD, especially with the northwest winds and the lack of a heavy jacket.  Walking the trails seemed a little more sane, so that's what we did.  Walking the bike trail along the edge of the park kept us out of the wind and allowed us to check the neighboring pasture lands.  For some reason, the interior fence lines were decorated with white rags.  (???)  I noticed a particularly large clump of white rags in a sheltered edge.  These rags appeared to have yellow bills and were remarkably similar to Cattle egrets in shape.  Cattle egrets are primarily insect eaters and tend to leave north Florida in winter especially when it is FREEZING.  But here were 30 Cattle egrets, differentiated from rags when they began to fly out to feed on whatever insects were still out and about.  list

We spent much of the rest of the morning exploring the remaining parts of our small but diverse territory.  Along Ham Pond Road we found a residence with bird feeders and several hungry birds.  We also discovered a water treatment facility which provided us with a couple ducks, Hooded merganser, and Bufflehead.  More importantly, there were nine Least sandpipers which were new for Jackson for me.  TICK!

Wind continued to hound us all morning.  As we drove up Gulf Power Road, I saw what I was pretty sure was a female Vermillion flycatcher in someone's yard.  We stopped and looked and could not see anything.  Maybe it took cover from the wind?  The mockingbird and Eastern phoebe seemed not to be affected.  We were on the way to lunch with Andy Wraithmell in Chatahoochee, which is where you have to go if you want lunch on this count.  So, on we went.

After lunch, we checked the ponds at the correctional institute and saw nothing even close to a Cackling goose among the Canada geese.

Andy told us of the ACI dairy pond during lunch so we headed there for one of our most productive stops of the day.  There were some weird looking Northern shovelers that led me to believe there were American wigeon at first.  Hordes of Green-winged teal were just that, no Blue-winged, or Cinnamon for that matter.  Coolest expereice was hearing and seeing 85 White ibises fly in and land in the trees next to us.  Eventually they, or most of them, would drop into the pasture to forage.  list

We had tried Sneads Park earlier and found the winds daunting and the birds lacking.  Trying again in the afternoon, we found the winds less daunting and the birds still mainly lacking, although we did get a couple of Canvasback.  list

After checking for feeders in Sneads, we decided to head back to the spot where I knew I saw a Vermillion flycatcher earlier.  Less winds mean more flycatchers and the female Vermillion put on quite a show!  We got a few identifiable pics and enjoyed watching her sally forth to pick insects off the ground.  This was a theme for the day.  As winds kept insects low to the ground, many birds were foraging on the ground.  list

Last stop of the day was back at one of our dawn spots where we heard and barely saw the Marsh wren and failed to hear any rails in the morning.  This time we saw the blackbird roost in all it's glory.  Swarms of blackbirds  swirled over the lake and many more came in in drips and drabs until well after dark.  Three each of Soras and Virginia rail called in the marsh.  We hoped for American woodcock or Black-crowned night-heron before heading to dinner, but it was not to be.  list

We ended up with 95 species for the day.  Quite a total for an inland count.

County Listing Gadsden and Liberty and a little bit of Calhoun

CBC's over (I've never done a CBC outside of Florida, but the last two sure felt like it) now it's time to go do some county listing!  But first, I must sleep late and have a wonderful breakfast at the Williams' house in Tallahassee.  That done, I set off to do some Gadsden County birding followed by Liberty, then maybe some Calhoun County birding before ending up at Travis and Karens' place near Blountstown for the next night.  Jackson had moved ahead of Gadsden by a couple species after the two CBC's added five species.  Now it was time for Gadsden to get back ahead.  County listing is often about opportunities.  Shorebirds habitat in this area is hard to come by due to a lack of marshes.  A very wet summer and fall filled ponds that were dry for years and wetted fallow crop fields awaiting spring planting.  Opportunity knocks.  Most of what was added to Jackson was shorebirds and ducks.  My Gadsden and Liberty lists lack many of the same species.  Gadsden lacks some species that are only a few counties away from being on the All-County list.  One of my many goals for county listing in Florida is to get 100 species on my All-County list.  Some key species like Eastern meadowlark, Northern harrier, Wilson's snipe, and Least sandpiper are still missing for Gadsden.  The former two are probably there most years, the latter are best found on wet years like this.  So, I set out to fill some holes and do some exploring.  I scoped out (on Google Earth) some ponds in a business park off I-10 for the possibility of snipe, rails, and Marsh wren.  I was about to play my rail tape (iPod actually) when I realized that I had left my speakers in Rob's car the day before.  I managed to get Marsh wren in one pond, but not rails or snipe.  I arranged to meet Rob at Phipps Park to get my speakers.  As I was heading to the park, I spotted a Ring-necked duck in a pond north of I-10.  While heading back to get my speakers, I got Hooded merganser in the same pond.  After getting my speakers, I passed the pond again and this time, nothing at all.  list


In the interest of time I will get on with this blog post instead of belaboring avery stop.  Perhaps highlights would be more in order.  The usual pace could likely bog down and result in no post at all.


I was thoughts were wavering between heading up to Chatahoochee and checking the tiny corner of Lake Seminole that is in Gadsden or hitting crop fields and beaver ponds.  The lake will always be there, but the opportunity lies in the wetted fields and ponds.  It's all about opportunity.  I headed all the way to the state line and even looped just barely into Alabama in hopes of finding Horned lark (found next door in Jackson) or Brewer's blackbird.  I would not, but I handed out a couple cards to curious farmers.  I would a harrier either, but I did at least get Eastern meadowlarks in a farm field.  I also got a couple Dark-eyed juncos on a road bordered by brushy fields and full of silent sparrows.  I stopped and could hear the birds scratching in the bushes but most would not come out to be seen.

Eventually, I headed on to Liberty where I my list stood at 145, ever so close to hitting 150.  One of my main goals is to get to 150 in every county, so I wanted to get to Liberty on this trip.  Gadsden is hard for shorebirds, Liberty is even harder.  I really wanted to get at least a Least sandpiper or maybe some rails.  Habitat for either is virtually non-existent.  Two All-County candidates, Rock pigeon and Loggerhead shrike, are still lacking Liberty County on their lists. The pigeon is somewhat understandable since there are no major highways in the county and the biggest city is Bristol.  There are no dairies in the county.  Dairies are where you go to get Rock pigeons in counties that don't have interstate highways.  The only places in Liberty where you might find Rock pigeon is the bridge on SR 20 going over the Apalachicola River into Blountstown and the west side of the dam at the mouth of Lake Talquin.  Both structures are only half in Liberty County.  Anyway, I made several stops around barbed wire fences and timber mills that might host pigeons or shrikes to no avail.  I had a brief moment of excitement when two Eurasian collared-doves flew out over the old catfish pond in Hosford.  Nope, not pigeons.  The ponds were drained awhile back and have filled in with grasses and emergent vegetation.  It is marginally good for Marsh wrens or maybe rails, but I could not get any this day.  Last effort to add birds to Liberty was a drive around Lake Mystic, the only good place in Liberty for ducks.  Visibility is not great, but you can get a few vistas by peeking between houses.  I got about 20 Ruddy ducks, new for the county.  In past visits, I have found a few other species.  The interior lakes in the panhandle serve as rest stops for migrating waterfowl and you can add just about anything, or nothing, to your county lists on them.  Scoters, loons, grebes, you never know.

Transitioning into Calhoun, looking for Rock pigeons on the SR 20 bridge as dusk approached, I had one of those bi-county experiences.  A Merlin, new for both Calhoun and Liberty and difficult to find in the interior, flew from Calhoun to Liberty as I went the opposite way.

In Calhoun, I checked Lake Hilda, an impounded waterway in the town of Blountstown, for Black-crowned night-herons.  Much to my surprise, the lake was drained and there were mud flats and a stream.  No night-herons, but I would like to hit this spot in the daylight and maybe pick up a Least sandpiper.  Rain set in as I headed to the McClendon's place and I was done for the day.  It was a nice casual day in transition from CBC's to planning and scouting for the Day 1 of the 12 Day Big Year.

12 Day Big Year Day 1

It was only a couple weeks before that I even heard of such a thing as a 12 Day Big Year.  I have long since given up on the idea of doing another Big Year.  I did two Florida Big Years in a row in 2000 and 2001.  I ran 63 Big Days from 2002 to 2004, then another to set the record in 2009.  Nowadays, I haven't the time or inclination to do such things again, but a 12 day Big Year?  You pick one day per month to bird and keep a cumulative list over the year?  That, I can handle!

I have so many commitments between being married, owning a house, working on contracts and guiding, festivals, etc. that even getting away once a month is a difficult.  I picked January 9th as the start day because the latter half of the month is rife with festival obligations.  I was in the panhandle, a key area for the Big Year, anyway for a couple of CBC's.  Choosing Thursday allowed me to recover on Friday and spend some quality time with Dee over the weekend.  The weather was going to be worse on Friday anyway, and Thursday was the first day of good weather after two unreasonable cold spells that led to persistent icicles in Florida.

The strategy for a 12 Day Big Year is, well, I'm still trying to figure that out.  I suspect it is something of a hybrid of Big Year and Big Day strategies.  My approach was generally that of most successful Big Year competitors:  chase the rarities and fill in the common birds and local specialties as you go.  Jacksonville had produced some mega-rarities lately.  My schedule was such that it would be difficult for me to run my February day before the third week and I was not confident the megas would still be around then, so Jacksonville would definitely figure into the January day.  The western panhandle has been hopping with some rarities, some of which would be new for me in the state, but it is so far from Jacksonville.  Quite a logistical challenge given the shortened daylight of January.  Could I get from Pensacola to Jacksonville AND have time to find all the birds I need?  No worries, two days of birding in the western panhandle produced little in the way of rarities.  Cold weather and harsh winds undoubtedly played a role, but some of the birds were clearly gone and others (loons and grebes in the bay) were so mobile that they could not be counted on when you only have one day.  Problem solved!  Another reason why the panhandle is key:  winter hummingbirds and finches.  What winter hummingbirds and finches?  This has been a dismal winter for rare hummers and feeder birds.  So, I thought of a really crazy plan, I do that.  Micheal Brothers has been seeing a California gull at Daytona Beach Shores the last couple days.  Is it possible to hit St. Mark's NWR in the morning, shoot straight to Jacksonville (skipping the birdless feeders of Tallahassee) and still have time to get to Daytona Beach Shores in time to score a California gull?  It's worth a try.

I saved enough time, after bombing in the western panhandle, to scope out the water levels at St. Marks NWR and find an American woodcock (a key species) calling outside the refuge just after dark.  Mallard, American black duck, Common goldeneye, White-faced ibis, Rusty blackbird, Nelson's sparrow, and perhaps Vermilion flycatcher would be key species the next day.  I should be able to get 100+ before even leaving the refuge and 150+ by the end of the day.  So, that was the plan.  I didn't have time and energy to come up with a detailed plan, as in past Big Days.  I was going to wing it.

I didn't get much sleep, but I had a lot of fun.  My grandmothers have long since left this world, but I did sleep with a feather down comforter.  I got an early start, too early for the woodcock which tend to be most active at dawn and dusk.  Perhaps an eager beaver would display, or at least fly around twittering its wings, so I could spend more time inside the refuge in search of other key species.  The refuge gates open at 6 am every day of the year.  In January that means lots of dark time to look for owls, etc., if you aren't tied to regimental woodcocks who insist of sticking to their schedule, not yours.

With only 12 days to do your Big Year, a key is to knock out suites of species or all species found in a particular area so you don't have to dedicate your limited time to working on those species or areas on future days.  With this in mind, I hoped to get Whip-poor-will and the usual owls (Great-horned, Barred and Eastern screech) and not have to worry about night birding on future days.  Of course, the woodcocks care not for my strategy or my Big Year, and I got nothing in the appointed woodcock spot nor at the refuge visitor center parking lot.  Started the day with two null checklists (eBird checklists with no species reported).  Null 1 Null 2  Not a good omen.  Weather would dog me all day with tomorrow's rain and wind making a special appearance on this, Day 1 of my 12 Day Big Year.  This was not good, however many of the key species were "wet birds" (species like ducks and wading birds that would not be affected by such inclement weather).   I would be affected, but I was toughened up from the arctic freeze of the last few days anyway.  Owling was going to be difficult with rain and wind, but hopefully the woodcock would be on display.  And so it was!  Second time was a charm.  Nothing else doing, but that was just fine with me.

First key species under my belt!  Now for more.  With a little darkness left, I stopped at the Twin Bridges to check for Wood duck and Barred owl.  I got null.  No bird species, but perhaps the most fortuitous find of the day was Don Morrow who was patiently waiting for ducks and owls.  He gave a few pointers about birds on the refuge and I headed off in pursuit of more key species.

Next stop, the restrooms, where I took one last shot at Whip-poor-will and Eastern screech owl in the waning darkness.  Dawn chorus began while I was there. (list)  So much for nocturnal stuff.

I made a stop at Stop 6 on the wildlife drive to check for rails and sparrows in the salt marshes.  Seaside sparrows sometimes sing this early in the morning and while they will be easy to get at later months, it would be nice to have this member of the salt marsh suite under my belt.  Cold and rain dampened the mood of the sparrows, but I did pick up a few more species for the day/year.

Bam, bam!  Rapid fire birding!  This is what I like about Big Days, even though this is a hybrid affair and a different approach.   I made another quick stop at the boat ramp near the Lighthouse Pond to see if I could stir a Black rail into calling.  I have heard of others getting them here and have heard Northern mockingbirds mocking Black rails here, but I have not and did not get them here.

Headquarters Pond (HQ is no longer near hear, but the name sticks) is a freshwater pond filled with lilly pads and ducks and roosting herons.  There once was an island in the center that hosted a diverse array of nesting wading birds.  The trees of the island have since disappeared, but the birds still roost on the island.  Black-crowned night-herons roost all around the pond and a pair of Bald eagles have nested at the back of the pond in past years.  Purple gallinules are here in the summer and often spend the winter.  I have had Cinnamon teal and many other nice birds here in the past.  I spied a few things from the road and moved on.  Bam!

An impromptu stop at another fresh water marsh netted King rail, the fresh water cousin of the ubur-abundant Clapper rail.  Ubur-abundant in the Big Bend and Panhandle regions of Florida where extensive salt marshes remain largely unaltered unlike the scant salt marshes of the east coast that succumbed to mosquito control decades ago.  Nearly all of the salt marshes along the east coast have been either filled in or flooded to control the breeding of salt marsh mosquitos.

I was heading back to the Twin Bridges to check off Rusty blackbird.  This is a traditional spot for Rusty blackbirds.  Early in the morning, they come in from the blackbird roost in Stoney Bayou and either spend the morning foraging in the swamps along the road, or spend a few minutes in the tree tops before moving on.  If the latter, timing would be very important.  Rusties are much harder to find these days, and having them under my belt would be another thing I don't have to worry about on remaining 11 days.  But wait, the blackbirds are still on the the roost in the marsh in Stoney Bayou.  I stopped briefly, and apparently did not record anything, I don't see a checklist for that stop.  Perhaps that was because I saw flocks of blackbirds leaving the roost and decided to head on to the bridges.

Don was still there, waiting patiently for the blackbirds now after hearing Barred owl in my absence and Wood ducks, which still squealed in the woods around us.  Blackbird flocks were passing by.  Some sounded a bit odd.  One such odd-sounding group landed atop the trees and, voila, I got Rusty blackbirds for the year!  There were at least a dozen, then even more that flew in before we left.  I was slowly getting key species under my belt.  list

Next stop was the Twin Dikes where Don told me of American black duck, Mallard, White-faced ibis, Vermillion flycatcher, and Cinnamon teal.  If I could knock out all of these, I could potentially leave off St. Marks NWR from future days.  This would make things a lot easier.  Don leads trips on the back dikes of the refuge every week and this was the day he was scouting.  He offered to drive me around and I gratefully accepted.  It was raining and cold and I was not looking forward to walking the long distance to the flycatcher and ducks.  Riding with Mr. Morrow gave me an edge.   Don knew the best places, the places where the birds are supposed to be.  We looked for Yellow-crowned night-heron among roosting Black-crowned (found zero) and made several stops to scan the open water for ducks.  Green-winged teal were present in great abundance, among them were several Blue-winged.  As we approached the "Vermillion Flycatcher Tree", where our little red buddy has been hanging out lately, I spotted the male Cinnamon teal in a flying flock of mixed ducks.  The flock went down and we got out our scopes and saw nothing.  The flock just disappeared.  Perhaps they flew when we were getting out our more powerful optics, or maybe they just went into a worm hole?  It was hard to tell with all the ducks flying around, but we never saw the Cinnamon again.  The weather struck a blow as the Vermillion flycatcher was nowhere to be seen, undoubtedly sheltering in a relatively warm and dry spot.  Not good, but not a killer.  There are others around the state, but I would rather not have to work them into future days.  Also missing was the American black ducks Don saw last Sunday.  We checked every flock of Mallards on the water and in the air, but no success.  One Plegadis ibis flew over and down and into the same hole the Cinnamon went into.  White-faced?  Could be, but I can't tell in flight.  Three misses, but at least I picked up Virginia rail to complete the suite of common rails (Clapper, King, Virginia, and Sora.)  I may have to come back for ibis and black duck on the future.  list

Next stop was the Lighthouse Pond area where, in order to save time, I recorded presence only for species observed rather than trying to count the individuals for every species.  I recorded 34 species including many key duck species, most importantly Common goldeneye, but failed to record American oystercatcher.  I doubt that will be a problem, but every species you get under your belt is one that you don't have to worry about in the future.  Speaking of under the belt, I got a Nelson's sparrow along the shoreline.  I may not have to come back to the lighthouse area again for the rest of the year!  list

It was getting late and sanity was telling me that I was not going to be able to make it to Daytona Beach Shores for California gull, so I took some time to look again for the Plegadis ibis near the T Dike.  Rain kept coming down and my scope was a bit foggy, as were the skies, but I was able to determine that the ibis was indeed a Glossy ibis.  Daggum it!  I won't have much problem finding them the rest of the year.  list

I thought of stopping a few times on the way out of the refuge, but that is Big Day thinking.  This is a 12 Day Big Year, I needed to get to Jacksonville for megas.  I left the refuge with a paltry 94 species; I expected to get around 120 species.  Between the weather and the hybrid, 12 Day approach, the species list was quite low.  Not to fear.

On the road again.  I picked up a few species here and there.  House sparrows were in Capps when I stopped for go juice for me and the truck.  Canada geese hang out at the Publix Distribution center north of I-10 in Jacksonville, but usually not at the more westerly Winn Dixie center.  Such was the case again this day.

My plan was to hit Fort Clinch State Park first and get the Harlequin duck, Black scoter, Purple sandpiper, and maybe a rare gull or another duck.  The rain let up as I left St. Marks NWR so I would have good weather for the rest of the day.  But wait!  As I approached Nassau County, rain bands and clouds moved in.  Why does the weather hate me?  Again, I was mostly looking for wet birds, but the Snow buntings might be affected by the rain and viewing offshore birds like jaegers would be difficult in the rain.  If I could knock out Pomarine and Parasitic jaeger, I could maybe break ties with the east coast on later days.

I got to the park around 1400, any hopes of getting to Daytona Beach Shores were gone, but plenty of time to bird Jacksonville.  The tide was really high, covering up the jetty and forcing the turnstones and Purple sandpiper up onto the fishing pier.  Or at least that was the plan.  There were only four Ruddy turnstones on the pier and no Purple sandpipers.  I would have another shot at Purple sandpipers at Huguenot Park, but that was a long shot.  February's day was to be either a run up the central east coast looking for gulls and other stuff, or a run to the SW featuring STA 5 and some SW Florida rarities and specialties.  If running the east coast, the Purple sandpiper is irrelevant as I will be hitting Ponce Inlet where they are regulars.  If I go southwest, I won't be seeing Purple sandpiper and I will need to pick them up later in the year.  12 Day Big Year thinking!

I walked the mile long pier (actually it is about 0.6 miles from the parking lot to the end of the pier, but it seems like a mile) and eventually found "Harly" foraging in the rough seas right over top of the submerged rock jetty.  Many Red-breasted mergansers and some Black scoters were also rock surfing in search of their preferred food, mergansers seeking scaled fish swirling among the rocks, scoters seeking shellfish attached to the rocks.  Other sea ducks have been seen lately here and I tired to pick out another scoter species or Long-tailed duck.  No such luck.  Far out at the end of the rock jetty, a mixed flock of gulls and terns swirled about.  This is like a magnet for hungry jeagers that pirate food from others who have taken the time to catch their own.  I have seen Parasitic jaegers here in past years.  This species seems to stay closer to shore than the larger Pomarine jaegers.  Both species are easily found in fall along the east coast, but I would rather not have that tie later in the year.  This day, I could only manage a very aggressive Herring gull, a species that sometimes takes a jaeger-like approach to procuring food.  No white-winged gulls were among the crowd of larids congregated on the patch of beach not covered by the tide.  Snapping up the white-winged gulls and Purple sandpiper could swing the pendulum toward the southwest for February.  Without them, I would likely stay east.  list

Now for the usual Snowy owl in the usual place.  I got some confusing information about the whereabouts of the owl, but no worries, just look for the group of photographers standing on the dunes.  The park service has allowed limited access to the sensitive dune ecosystem in the hopes that damage can be limited, acknowledging the reality that people are going to go see the owl and the park personnel can take the time to guard the area around the clock.  Atop the dune there is a rope separating the owl and the photographers and all players were on the correct side of the rope.  I hated to be "that guy" who comes up and checks off the bird and then takes off, but that's what you gotta do when you are on a mission like this.  I did not bring the scope to look for jaegers and such offshore because the fog had rolled in, making offshore visibility impossible.  Weather dogging me again!  Got ma owl, getting ma butt on the road.  list

Another key species was Saltmarsh sparrow sister species of the Nelson's sparrow from the morning.  These species were once considered a single species, Sharp-tailed sparrow, before being "split" some years ago.  On the gulf coast of Florida nearly all "Sharp-tailed sparrows" are Nelson's sparrows.  On the Atlantic coast, most are Saltmarsh sparrows.  Habitat for Saltmarsh sparrow exists between Little Talbot Island SP and Huguenot Park, and I made a couple stops on the way before looking for Snow buntings.  Windy conditions and receding tides made it difficult and I would leave without my Saltmarsh sparrow.  High tide is the best time to look since the sparrows are driven to the edge of the marshes by the rising water.  Low tides scatters the birds about the extensive marshes, making it difficult to find them.  I can get this species at Shiloh Marsh and possibly other spots at Merritt Island NWR, another vote for the east coast in February.

Huguenot Park failed to yield Snow bunting when Dee and I tried for the Jacksonville Hat Trick in December.  Raining that time, but not this time, so far; I had some hope.  I walked to the appointed area and looked, without success.  The tide was receding, but the northeast wind kept the tidal flats covered up with water and buffeted the beaches.  Thus, the gulls, terns and shorebirds were huddled on the beach at the end of the dune at the base of the rock jetty.  It was this congregation that drew my attention away from the dunes.  I could still keep an eye on the dunes for Snow bunting while scanning the gulls for white-winged types (Glaucous and Iceland).  Jaegers were a no go due to the intense fog.  Among the huddled masses of turnstones were FOUR Purple sandpipers, more than I have seen in Duval County ever before.  Very cool!  Also got me some Red knot.  Still no white-winged gulls.  I heard a strange call in the dunes that I chalked up to the twittering of turnstones.  I played the calls of Snow bunting on my iPod on the way back to the truck and, wait a minute!  Were those Snow bunting calls?  I went back to the base of the dunes and heard the call again.  Definitely Snow buntings!  For good measure, they landed right in front of me, on the beach.  I got on the phone to call a Sarasota area birder who was also trying for the Hat Trick, but the birds took off a flew across the water toward Mayport NAS.  Given the late hour, I suspect they would not be back that day.  list

Next up was driving home, or nearly so.  I knew of nesting Barn owl a mile from my house at Marsh Landing Restaurant and I could maybe get a few key species at Stick Marsh parking lot before midnight.  I pointed myself south and wouldn't you know it, as I drove south in Brevard County, I encountered bands of rain.  I pushed on and headed to the county line, stopping long enough at Babcock Street to pick up a Great horned owl within St. Sebastian River Preserve.  It would be nice to pick up Eastern screech and Barred owls as well so I can not worry about owls the rest of the year.  Not this night, not this weather.

I slopped my way down the muddy road to Stick Marsh parking area and was not alone at 10 PM on a Thursday night.  Someone was camping in their van and others were possibly doing the same in their pickup trucks or were out on the water or on the boat belonging to the trailer that sat in the parking lot.  Someone was fishing by boat in the canal on the river side of the structure.  Lots of people, now let's get some birds!  I lit up the banks with my LED spotlight, an early Christmas gift from Dee, but could not turn up a Yellow-crowned night-heron or even a Limpkin.  I had hoped to hear a Fulvous whistling-duck, another key species.  They are not so much difficult to see, but are only in a few areas within the state.  If I can get them under my belt, I don't have to make a special effort at a later date.  It's only the first of 12 days, but you can't afford to run around picking up too many pieces in November and December.  I did not get many species here but Limpkin eventually sounded off in the rain.  list

Last stop was in the yard where I would record another null checklist while trying for Eastern screech owl and Whip-poor-will.  I ended the day with 124 species, ridiculously low, but with some key species and the suite of rails and the Jacksonville Hat Trick.  I am missing such ridiculously common species as Fish crow, House wren, and many others.  I don't know yet if I did well or not.  I have about a month to figure out what to do in February.  I can't wait!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Guiding locally

Today I took Laure Neish and her SOB (Spouse of Birder) on a tour of T.M. Goodwin WMA and St. Sebastian River Preserve in search of life birds for Laure.

We started in the fog at the Stick Marsh Parking Lot where we found at least four Limpkin.  We were able to approach rather closely to get good looks despite the fog.  We walked up into the WMA to search for King rail and Sedge wren.  King rail was rather cooperative, giving us a few good looks along the low road north of the office.  Sedge wrens were inexplicably absent in the time we looked.

Next up was St. Sebastian River Preserve to hunt down some Red-cockaded woodpeckers, Bachman's sparrows, and Brown-headed nuthatches.  First we spied a few manatees from the manatee overlook at the end of the road.  One was wearing a transmitter to let scientists know where it travels.  Once in the woods we had to walk quite a bit to find a flock containing the woodpeckers.  There were at least three, maybe four Red-cockaded woodpeckers that were quite cooperative and one very annoying Brown-headed nuthatch that reluctantly gave us some views.  Bachman's sparrows are quite abundant in the area, but are very hard to see at this time of year.  One was actually in song, the earliest I think I have ever heard one.  We flushed a couple while walking through the woods but did not get much for good views.

Running a little short on time, we decided to try Goodwin again in the light this time.  Since it is Thursday, we can drive up to the Broadmoor Unit and search for Fulvous whistling-ducks.  We did not have time to go all the way to Browadmoor, but we did go up almost to it where I have had Fulvous on several past visits.  After turning around unsuccessful in our quest, I noticed a strange duck flying from the Broadmoor area.  I had just finished telling  Laure that Fulvous are always found in groups when this single bird flew in front of us, giving less than spectacular views.  I suspect they are somewhere near the front in one of the cells that contains water, as they were last year.  I'll have to investigate further when I get the chance.

That was it for today's adventures.  I'll spruce this up later, but I have to go to Tallahassee for my last two CBCs in the next two days.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Snowy owl, etc. 2013 12 29

Instead of watching the final week of NFL Football, Dee and I went up to Jacksonville so Dee could get a better look at Snowy owl (we saw the head of one last year in coastal Georgia) and hopefully get Harlequin duck and Snow bunting.  We were reading reports of the weather and other birders' success via Facebook and email on my iPhone; you kids don't know how easy you've got it.  Weather was extremely doubtful for the buntings.  High winds and rain wouldn't likely affect the duck and owl.  Traffic was heavy on I-95 on this, the last Sunday of the year.  Fortunately, nobody got stupid in the northbound lanes.  Several accidents snarled traffic in the southbound lanes.

We arrived first at the Little Talbot Island where the Snowy owl was visible from A1A as we crossed the inlet past Huguenot Memorial Park.  We drove all the way up to the entrance of the park and all the way back down to the last parking lot before walking across the beach to the crowd of birders and photographers watching the owl.  Lots of dark markings make me think it is an immature female (females and young birds are darker than males and older birds) although I have little experience with this species.  We spent some time watching the bird as is sat on an island exposed by the low tide.

Since we were right there near the Snow buntings at Huguenot Park, we decided to check for them before heading to the slam dunk Harlequin duck at Fort Clinch State Park.  We got out to the area where they have been seen and found a parking lot that was reasonably dry and set out.  Dee had to cover the camera to avoid the rain that waited for us to get as far from the car as possible.  We heard from other birders where the birds were last seen, around 10:30 and the stretch of dunes where they were found.  Incidentally, this was where Andy and I saw a Lapland longspur many years ago.  Wind and rain, as well as the vast extent of habitat made our attempt somewhat hopeless, but we had to try.  This is one of my favorite birding parks, and I was glad to get back, even if the weather was not so welcoming.  We left without our quarry.

Fort Clinch State Park is another of my favorite parks in Florida.  I camped here, what seems like 100 years ago now, in summer and found 26 singing male Painted buntings throughout the park.  Painted buntings are quite abundant breeders along the coast from Anastasia State Park up through North Carolina.  Having grown up seeing Painted buntings breeding in old orange groves in north Brevard County and Merritt Island NWR, it seems weird to see them sitting atop Wax myrtles and other shrubs in the sand dunes of NE Florida.

The pier, where Andy Bankert and I got Long-tailed duck and Iceland gull on an epic birding weekend that also included Lapland longspur and Harris's Sparrow back in the day when Andy still birded with me, was our destination.  I still remember approaching the pier one year in late May and finding five singing male Painted buntings in the back dunes.  The buntings had left for the winter, but our little buddy, the Harlequin duck was a welcome, if slightly less colorful replacement.  I was keeping track of all the birds for my eBird checklist and hoping to find one of the Surf scoters reported before, for my Nassau list, when I spied the adult male Harlequin duck with a female Black scoter about 200 m north of the middle of the pier.  As we watched, and Dee got video, the birds drifted SE toward the end of the pier and eventually put on a show, diving and feeding on the edge of the rock jetty.  I have seen two Harlequin ducks on Florida in the past, both at Sebastian Inlet, one was an immature male, the other an adult female.  This was my first adult male.  I noted the tail sticks up like a Ruddy duck when the bird is sitting in the water.  The stripe on the head is actually raised up like a crest.  It looks like a little circus duck with all the colors, spots, and stripes.

Without much daylight left and Dee facing the prospect of work, we decided to head on home from here.  We stopped at Egans Creek Park to check the marshes for Virginia rail and Sora for my Nassau list.  No such luck.

To prove that it is not all about birds, we stopped at The Loop Pizza Grill for some amazing pizza before heading home.

It was a great day to see some really rare birds and meet FB and email friends in 3D.