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Thursday, November 5, 2015

How do you find a Franklin's gull in Florida?

Every fall, Franklin's gulls leave their breeding grounds in the Great Plains of Canada and the U.S. and head down through Texas to their wintering grounds along the pacific coast of South America.  Juveniles, having never made the pilgrimage before, sometimes find themselves in Florida, on the "wrong" side of the Gulf of Mexico.  Some are swept eastward by the many cold fronts that cross the continent.  Others, upon arrival on the gulf coast of Texas, may join flocks of Laughing gulls and wander east with their new friends.  However it happens, every October and November we find a few gems hiding among the Laughing gulls that dominate the gullscape of Florida.

So, finding a Franklin's gull in Florida is as simple as finding a large group of Laughing gulls, right?  Well maybe not quite that easy, but places where Laughing gulls congregate are where you want to look.  Florida has many such places along our coasts and even landfills and inland lakes, like Lake Okeechobee.  Hundreds (sometimes as many as 20,000 or more) of Laughing gulls gather to feed and rest on beaches, parking lots, lakes, and land fills.  Now searching for a wayward Franklin's gull among 20,000+ Laughing gulls may seem a bit daunting, but I have some tips to make it a little less so.

Franklin's gulls differ from Laughing gulls in nearly every feature of plumage and structure.  Individual variation within each species confuses the issue somewhat as extremes can nearly overlap.  However,  there are a couple of shortcuts.  I finally found my first Franklin's gull in Florida at Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral on Oct 23, 2000.  Prior to that, I spent many an hour agonizing over Laughing gulls that "looked good" for Franklin's.  Does that bird have enough of a black half hood?  Is the bill small enough?  Do the eye arcs look thick enough, do they connect at the rear of the eye?  I never quite felt comfortable enough to call one a Franklin's.  The Jetty Park bird was not my first Franklin's gull.  In January of 1998, I spent eight days in Texas with Howard Adams and John Hintermister.   While looking for Mexican Crows (now Tamaulipas Crow) at the Brownsville Dump, we found a couple of Franklin's gulls.  I immediately realized two things:  1) Franklin's gull is not that hard to pick out among Laughing gulls.  2)  All those wannabe Franklin's gulls I agonized about in Florida were definitely Laughing gulls.

What tipped me off?  Why are Franklin's gulls so distinctive?  Here are some key points that I use to find wayward Franklin's among Laughing gulls in Florida.  Most Franklin's gulls found in Florida are young of the year.  Juveniles of both species are mostly brown on the head and upper parts.  Much of the brown feathers are replaced before they depart the breeding grounds.  Back feathers are gray.  The primaries are black.  The head is mostly white with some amount of black.  However the brown "panel" on the wings (retained juvenile wing coverts) allow first year birds to be easily picked out from the rest (all other ages having gray coverts.)  At this age, both species have black primaries, but only Franklin's shows white tips in the primaries.  Some Franklin's may have very little white in the tip and indeed white tips are prone to wearing off, but all Franklin's gulls that I have seen in fall have shown white tips.  On the contrary, no first year Laughing gulls, and I have looked at thousands of them, have shown any white at all in the wing tips.  While scanning through a sitting flock gulls, look for the distinct half hood of Franklin's gull along with the thick white eye arcs connecting at the back of the head.  This is the feature that jumps out at me first.  Some variant Laughing gulls may mimic these features, but once you see a real Franklin's gull, you will realize that the others were just pretenders.  If you are not sure if it is "Franklin's" enough, it is a Laughing gull.  Franklin's gull sports a clean white hind neck, not the mottled gray neck of a Laughing gull.  The whiter hind neck further sets off the distinct half hood in Franklin's.

Eureka!  You have found a bird with a distinct half-hood, bushy eyebrows connecting at the back of the eye, and white-tipped primaries, a Franklin's gull!  Congratulations.  Now take the opportunity to observe how the other features differ from the more common Laughing gulls.  Note how the bill is smaller and lacks the slight bulge on the tip of the maxilla (upper bill) shown on Laughing gulls.  The maxilla and mandible of Franklin's gulls are similar in size and shape.  The head of Franklin's is smaller with a shorter, more rounded forehead.  Legs and wings of Franklin's are shorter than Laughing, giving Franklin's a distinctly smaller look.

Forget about picking a Franklin's gull out of a group of flying Laughing gulls, right?  Well, maybe not.  In some ways, it is easier to pick out a Franklin's gull when the birds are flying.  Did I mention that Franklin's gulls have shorter legs and shorter wings than Laughing gulls?  When I found my first Franklin's in Florida, on the beach with a bunch of Laughing gulls, it promptly walked behind the other gulls and disappeared.  No field marks work well on a bird you cannot see.  Franklin's gulls find it much harder to hide in a constantly shifting flock.  Now you see me, now you don't, now you see me again, etc. etc.  So don't ignore migrating or moving flocks of gulls or give up when an eagle or a Peregrine falcon flushes the sitting birds you were just scanning through.  In flight there are even more features to look for.  The head pattern and whitish hind neck of Franklin's is still the most striking feature, at close range.  In flight, the underside of the wings and flanks are visible.  Franklin's gulls show clean white wing linings and flanks versus mottled gray in Laughing gulls.  The wings of Franklin's gulls are noticeably shorter and rounder in flight.  Both species show a dark subterminal band on the white tail.  On Franklin's gulls, the outermost tail feathers are white, so the band does not continue to the edge of the tail as it does in Laughing gulls.

Later in winter, Laughing gulls begin molting into the black-headed garb of summer.  Some might even have full black heads by early January.  These transitional birds may go through a phase where they mimic the half-hooded look of Franklin's gulls.  The brown panel of juvenile wing coverts is replaced by gray as the birds approach their second spring,  The white tips on the primaries of Franklin's gulls may wear off by late winter.  Thus, some of the more eye-catching differences in plumage are less striking in late winter.  Structural and other plumage differences remain, however.  Also note that adults of both species have gray wings and white tips on the black primaries.  Structural differences become even more important in identifying adult Franklin's gulls in fall and winter.  Most Franklin's gulls are gone from Florida by December, but a few may stick around.  I once saw a second year Franklin's gull, by itself, on Lake Okeechobee in April.  The white primary tips had worn off and the brown panel had been replaced by gray.  Structural features were not quite as noticeable without any Laughing gulls standing nearby.  I had to resort to the internet to figure that one out.

Hopefully these tips will help you pick out Franklin's gulls from among the 1000's of Laughing gulls in Florida.  Once you get some practice, you might be surprised at how many you find.  Franklin's gulls will still be uncommon, but not so mysterious as before.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Breeding Bird Atlas II - Kenansville NE 6

Kenansville NE 6 was the last of my assigned blocks for 2015 and this morning I was finally able to visit.  The area is within St. Johns Water Management District's Upper Basin Project, northwest and west of T.M. Goodwin WMA's Broadmoor Unit.  Driving to the area requires a Special Use Authorization from the district.  Species list from BBA I was 27 species above Observed.  This morning I recorded 25 above Observed, a similar total but very different composition  This is what second BBA's are all about!

Prior to about 1988 (BBA I was 1986-1991) this area was farmland, mostly used for cattle ranching.  Around that time the water management district began purchasing these drained marsh lands for the dual purpose of providing better water management and for conservation and restoration of natural resources.  Currently the area is entirely flooded, the depth varying among the management units.  Vegetation varies from open marsh to heavily wooded edges, mostly Red maples, Cabbage palms, and American elm trees.  Only one levee remains available for non-boating traffic and it covers only about 1.3 miles in the northeast corner.  However, non-boating access is not so limited as it first appears.  The levee on the west side of Broadmoor is barely east of the block.  For two miles, one can peer into the block, scanning the open water and rows of willow trees, ghosts of farming times, for nesting wading birds and other species.

The species list from BBA I provides further ghosts of an agricultural past.  Burrowing owls, Northern bobwhite, and Eastern meadowlark found in the first BBA are but a memory today.  Marginal habitat for meadowlarks exist in some patches, but bobwhite and Burrowing owl are surely gone.  A couple of Wild turkeys appeared on the levee at the north end of the block.  This species is outside its safe date range, thus they were not recorded.  The presence of young birds, or some other higher indication of breeding would allow them to be recorded, but the mere presence of the species is not enough, especially given the marginal habitat in the area.  Perhaps they had wandered down the levee from a more suitable area.  Nice to see them nonetheless.  East of the spot where the oddball turkeys were observed, across a canal and another levee, there exists a small clump of mature Slash pines.  Slash pines are one of the first upland species to die off when a wetland is restored (and one of the first to invade when it is drained.)  Their presence indicates that at least a small part of the area remains above the flood, perhaps offering refuge to a few land lubbers like these turkeys.  Stranger than wetland turkeys and surely the most unusual bird of the day, between the levee and the island of pines, was a singing male Indigo bunting.  It is far too early for this species to be in migration and the fact that it was singing indicates that it is still not ready for summer to end.  Indigo buntings breed (bred?) in the northwest part of Brevard County, but are rarely if ever found in summer in the southwestern parts of the county.  Other indications of a departure from past land management strategies, woodland species like Chuck-will's-widow and Blue jay were found in BBA I.  They are not likely to be found in the current management scheme.  Agricultural use of the area is an aberration from its long history.  Open marsh and swamp habitat prevailed for thousands of years.  Even further back, during periods of higher sea level and prior to the current level of sand deposits from the eroding Appalachian Mountain Range, the St. Johns River Valley was a coastal lagoon similar to today's Indian River Lagoon system.  The habitat of today, while not a perfect representation of Pre-Columbian Florida is much closer to it than what was there during the first atlas.

Of the species found in BBA II but not BBA I, some are expected in light of the near restoration of the landscape.  Snowy egret, Anhinga, Tricolored heron, and Black-bellied whistling-duck are on the new list, no surprises there.  Black-belleid whistling-ducks are actually a recent colonizer, barely a presence at the time of the first atlas, but now found as far north as South Carolina on a regular basis, straying still further north.  Some are a bit more baffling.  Mourning dove, Red-bellied woodpecker, White-eyed vireo, and Northern mockingbird were recorded on BBA II but not BBA I.  These are generally upland species and are some of the most commonly recorded species in both atlases.  It seems more likely they would have been present in BBA I and "flooded" out in BBA II.

The species list (and lack of some expected species) from BBA I, gives me reason to believe that the block was visited only once in the inaugural atlas.  Effort data were not recorded in the first atlas.  In order to make a realistic comparison of effort between the two atlases, we have chosen to use the species list as a relative measure of effort.  27 species last time versus 25 species this time, also from a single visit, renders another visit unnecessary.  However, I do plan to visit next year in order to run a mini-route, something we did not do in the first atlas.  During today's visit, I collected data from 12 points on the mini route.  These won't count toward the official mini route.  The range of dates and time of day are set to coincide with peak singing activity in songbirds.  We are past the date range and I was past the time range for most of the morning anyway.  However, the point counts are a valuable addition to eBird.  Only six of these points were inside the block.  From five others, I could peer into the block from Broadmoor.  One offers no view of the block but is in line with the rest.  The last three continue north into block 5.  This is in keeping with the mini route methodology as they do not capture habitats or species not found within the block.

What fun!?!  This is likely my last field atlas work for the 2015 season.  I had hoped to see some congregations of Swallow-tailed kites and contribute to the survey conducted by ARCI, but alas, I only saw two.  Two more survey dates await; I still have a chance!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Telegraph Creek Preserve

One of the advantages of being stationed in LaBelle while working on Lake Okeechobee is that I can explore some of the natural areas in southwest Florida without driving 3 hours to do so.  This morning, I decided to hit Telegraph Creek Preserve, part of Lee County's Preservation 2020 program.  My county listing goal was to add Wild turkey and perhaps Brown-headed nuthatch to my Lee list.  To this end, I decided that the west trail entrance offered the best chance.  It is less hemmed in by developments and is adjacent to the Babcock Ranch Preserve in Charlotte County to the north.  The Yellow Trail offered a leisurely 4.7 mile hike through the flat woods.

I was immediately impressed by the county's efforts to remove exotic pest plants from the site.  I suspected that some of the dead vegetation was Downy Rose-myrtle Rhodomyrtus tomentosus, a species with which I have some experience in Malabar Scrub Preserve about 20 years ago.  Rose-myrtle is known to invade pine flat woods to the extent that it even crowds out Saw palmetto!  The fruits are packed with columns of seeds, stacked like parallel piles of pancakes.  The species is prized by some gardeners and conisuers of home made jellies for those very fruits.  I suspect it was such folks who may have led to the occurrence of the species in Malabar.  In Florida, the species is primarily distributed in southwest Florida where it's pink flowers disgrace the flat woods along many a highway.

Once in the interior of the site, I was further impressed with the effects of recent prescribed fires.  The pine flat woods of the preserve are in spectacular condition, use begging for Bachman's sparrows, inexplicably absent, to come back.  I don't know the specific history of the site, but I suspect it was not always so well managed and that the Bachman's sparrows were extirpated from the site during a period of fire suppression in the past when vegetation grew too dense for the likes of Bachman's sparrow.  Bachman's sparrows do occur nearby in Lehigh Acres and Babcock-Webb WMA and probably Babcock Ranch Preserve, so the possibility exists of recolonization from these nearby populations.

I found many species of birds on site including three different Red-headed woodpeckers, a single Eastern bluebird, carrying for for unseen young, and a pair of Northern (Yellow-shafted) flickers engaged in courtship behavior.  The latter species is increasingly difficult to find in Florida.  They are insect eaters, consuming a large number of ants.  As we humans have become more adept at controlling ants and other insects. species like the flicker often disappear along with the less desirable parts of our environment.  Non-birds of interest were a pair of Coyotes flushed from a palmetto patch and two different Alligators using the trails system to navigate from one pond to another.  One of them was stymied by the field fence on the north side of the property which was installed to the ground rather than leaving a gap at the ground level to allow wildlife to travel underneath.  The trail turned left before I bought up with this individual, so I was not forced to move this one along or turn back.  The second individual was either a female or a small male.  It moved off the trail, then stopped to take a stand.  I was not close enough to invoke a fight response, it merely hissed at me from it's position in the grasses off the trail.

This place is hard to find and not very inviting as you make the switchback off SR 78 west of Alva, but well worth the visit.  I will be back.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Great Texas Birding Classic

Swarovski Optic, more particularly Clay Taylor, has asked me to be on the team for this year's Great Texas Birding Classic.  A lot is at stake as we prepare to defend the title after wining the last two texas competitions.  After spending the last several weeks, working in Florida, showing off Florida to many new friends and clients, it is going to be very tiring, but very rewarding, I'm sure.  I wish I had more time to write about it, but I have to catch a plane to Houston and start the six day birding competition on arrival.  More about it later.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

STA 2 - Flamingos

Yesterday, April 4, 2015, I was able to lead a field trip to Stormwater Treatment Area 2 (STA 2) in southern Palm Beach County.  The area encompasses the former Brown's Farm Wildlife Management Area, an area once leased to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for waterfowl hunting.   The area is now part of Everglades restoration, filtering water coming of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) before it continues it's journey to Florida Bay.

STA 2 is managed by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). The staff at SFWMD have been very generous in allowing access to restricted areas of the STAs.  Hendry-Galdes Audubon Society has been leading trips to STA 5 for a number of years.  Audubon Society of the Everglades (ASE), based in Palm Beach County, has been leading trips to STA 1E for a couple years.   Last year, word got out that a flock of American Flamingos had been visiting STA 2 annually for a number of years,  The staff at SFWMD and volunteers at ASE arranged to allow special access to STA 2 for folks to see the flamingos.  Popularity grew quickly and now there are several trips scheduled this year, shuttling ca 500 people through the area this year.  There are future plans to allow monthly surveys as in STA 5 and 1E.

But enough boring stuff, let's get on with the birds. I arrived at the gate to find everyone already there, about 40 folks in all.  Susan McKemy was busy checking people in and assigning them to the 12 vehicle caravan.  Several friends of mine were there, some expected, others a pleasant surprise.  We had to blow past the first couple congregations of birds in oder to have time for the flamingos.  Unlike other STA trips, the route for this one is about 20 miles long and we have to vacate the area where the flamingos are by 5:30 so as not to disturb them.  We saw the flamingos at the third open patch of water, along with hundreds of Black-necked stilts (sometimes referred to as "Marsh Poodles"), American white pelicans, American coots, and many other species.  There were six flamingos present, interestingly, they were set off in three pairs.  One bird appeared to be a juvenile, much grayer than the others with duller legs, face, and bill.  A couple others had a strange color patter, grayish on the body and bright pink on the head and next.  The birds were fairly far out and were not disturbed by our presence.  After about an hour of watching, scanning for other birds, such as Stilt sandpipers, American avocets, and others, we decide to move on.  Blasting through the rest of the STA, we made brief stops for nesting wading birds and to peruse the remaining ducks (mostly Blue-winged teal among the throngs of coots and gallinules) searching other lingerers.  We did manage to see several Northern shovelers, a couple American wigeon and a few Ring-necked ducks.  Fulvous whistling-ducks were abundant. This species was once much more common in Florida but now is more restricted. The EAA is one of the areas where they remain common and easily seen although often in restricted or difficult to access areas. Snail kites were seen in singles throughout the area as were Purple swamphens, a new addition to the American Birding Association's Checklist. Two Peregreine falcons continually flew ahead and behind us offering many views.  Two adult Gull-billed terns foraged in one of the last open water areas. The last great sighting was found by Paul Miller, a male Least bittern that stood out in a clump of bulrushes long enough for everyone to get good scope views. A great time was had by all. Many more trips to come. I will be leading a double header next Sunday, April 12.  Hope to see some you out there.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Birds of a Feather Festival

It's been w long time since I posted to the blog.  Not like there hasn't been anything happening, wuite the contrary.  I have been busier than usual with 11 Christmas Bird Counts, two back to back festivals in January (Everglades Birding Festival and Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival) sprinkled with working on Lake Okeechobee and guiding several people including two trips to Bunche Beach in Sanibel.  Now we are off to kick off the first Birds of a Feather Festival centered in the city of Palm Coast, FL.  Dee and I are teaching a couple of classes and leading a few field trips over the weekend.  I hope to carve out some time to post our adventures here in the near future and maybe recall some of the past fun.