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.

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