Saturday, December 13, 2008

Florida Trip - Days 6-8

Day 6 - Wednesday, December 10, 2008
We started the morning at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, where we took the 5-mile loop road as soon as they opened at 7:30 a.m. There was one area with a LOT of shorebirds of many species, including Red Knot and Marbled Godwit among the more numerous dowitchers and peeps. Unlike our visit here in 1978, there were almost no ducks (thousands of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Blue-winged Teal before) and very few American Coots (10,000+ before). We saw only a handful of wigeon, about ten teal, and a couple hundred coots. Perhaps they hadn't arrived yet from the north? Of course, we were here in November in 1978 which may have made a difference. The numbers of waterbirds was lower too, but we did manage to see most of the major species including:

Reddish Egret

Snowy Egret

White Ibis

From here we headed south through Naples then east towards the Everglades. Our next stop was the Fakahatchee Strand State Park where we intended to walk a short boardwalk, then drive a scenic road. Unfortunately, we found out that the road wasn't in great shape so we'll have to go there some other time. This area is better known among orchid enthusiasts than it is among birders. Several rare orchids are known only from this area, and a few species have not been seen in many years, or the exact location where they were found originally has been lost. Much of this is due to over collecting, but some is due to environmental issues, such as a period of freezing in the 1980s. Looking out at the habitat from the boardwalk, it isn't too hard to figure out why some of these often inconspicuous plants have vanished for years, decades, or even forever.

We saw more Wood Storks in this part of Florida than elsewhere.

Heading east, we stopped at various locations within the Big Cypress Reserve where waterbirds were very common, including especially American Anhingas, in the ditches.

At a new Visitors Center (well, apparently new since our last trip through this part of Florida in 1988), another Anhinga allowed very close approach.

And American Alligators were very abuntant also, including some large ones that were perhaps 10-feet long.

Near the boundary of Everglades National Park we found a Snail Kite at the expected locale near the Miccosukee Restaurant, but it only allowed for a few brief photos. From here we headed northward to the Atlantic Coast where we stopped near Melbourne, Florida for the night.

Day 7 - Thursday, December 11, 2008
We were concerned about getting home on or before Saturday, so we got up very early and drove 200 miles north to Jacksonville, arriving at the Fort Clinch State Park. Here, we hoped to see a few species difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in Florida. These included Purple Sandpiper which would be on the jetty, and scoters and Northern Gannets which would be offshore. It turned out that the pier was closed so views of the jetty were very restricted, and no Purple Sandpipers were in evidence.

It was overcast, windy, and threatening to rain. Offshore there were virtually no waterfowl of any kind, but a couple of immature Northern Gannets did oblige with distant views. On the beach here was a fairly large flock of Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls (two Bonaparte's), Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers.

The wind kept putting the birds up, and they had to keep resettling themselves on the beach.

As we left this park around 10:30 a.m. it started raining. By the time we got back to the freeway it was torrential. We drove north into Georgia and, despite the rain, headed east to Jekyll Island. Most of the species we were hoping to add to our Georgia list were waterbirds that would likely still be active despite the rain, but most land birds were hunkered down waiting for the storms to pass. We did succeed in finding may shorebirds, gulls, terns, both Brown and White Pelican, and Northern Gannet. The rain never let up, but was somewhat lighter at times, so it would have been foolhardy to try to take photos. It is clear that during spring and fall migration, Jekyll Island would be a birder's paradise.

From here we continued north, and around 2 p.m. the rain was stopping and the sun was even starting to come out. Reports on the radio indicated that some areas had gotten 4-inches of rain with this storm, though apparently no tornados (watches were posted). We decided on one more stop, at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. We drove the 4-mile loop road here, finding a few birds but not a lot of water was visible from the road. We found a Nine-banded Armadillo, face down in pine needles, foraging along the roadside in one area of Longleaf Pine woodland. The pink scar on his/her rump is likely from a close encounter with a car.

And one of the last birds of the day was this fine Loggerhead Shrike perched right next to the road in the Refuge.

We then continued northward into South Carolina, mostly in the dark, stopping near Orangeburg for the night.

Day 8 - Friday, December 12, 2008
We decided not to get an extremely early start, as we had 800 miles to get home and it might be too difficult to do in a single day, depending on the weather we'd encounter. We started at 7 a.m., and the roads were quite clear all the way up into North Carolina and Tennessee. We had some very scenic views around the east and north sides of the Great Smoky Mountains caused by snow. Fortunately, most of the snow was above the level of the road. Northward into Kentucky, the temperatures really started dropping (it was 73 when we started), getting down to freezing pretty quickly. The roads remained clear, except for rush hour traffic around Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. We managed to make it all the way home by 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Florida Trip - Day 5

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

This morning we arrived at Honeymoon Island State Park about 15 minutes before they opened. We walked the Osprey Trail, which lived up to its name, with several nests and cooperative individuals along the trail. Part of the trail was closed due to an active Bald Eagle nest. We were rewarded with a couple low fly-bys of eagles, even though we didn't walk out to the end of the trail to see the nest.

We also found many land birds along this trail, including the first Prairie Warbler of the trip. The park is famous for shorebirds, sometimes with "thousands" present, we had to settle for dozens today (though there were many dozens of Royal Terns and Black Skimmers) since it was high tide. But, some of the shorebirds were fairly cooperative for photos, including:

Black-bellied Plover

Piping Plover

Snowy Plover

American Oystercatcher

From here we headed south to the Sarasota area, where we checked the Celery Fields which were supposed to have a few Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. We succeeded in finding them, though only distantly in the scope, along with many other waterbirds including Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork, lots of coots, Lesser Scaup, and a couple Mottled Ducks. One of the more unexpected birds in this area was a pair of Monk Parakeets, one of which posed nicely on the power lines for photos.

Next, it was on to the Oscar Scherer State Park near the town of Osprey, where we birded in the sandy pine and oak scrub.

One of the first things we saw here, after a couple species of butterflies, was quite a surprise. We found not one, but two different Gopher Tortoises, a lifer for us! The first one was quite shy and "sprinted" off into the brush when we got out of the car. The second one was much more tolerant, and allowed close approach.

Of course the key bird in this habitat is the Florida Scrub-Jay. Finding a family group was impossible on the Green Trail, but a short distance down the Yellow Trail they found us rather quickly, and as expected, tried to land on us! Two of the birds were color banded as part of ongoing research on this Threatened species, while two others were not banded.

With a 400mm lens on my camera, it took quite a bit of backing up to get more than just the bird's head in the frame, as in this shot below.

It was actually just as easy to photograph these birds with my "point-and-shoot" camera.

And this point-and-shoot shot was taken against the sky, but with fill flash, which the birds ignored.

Our last stop of the day was intended to be on Sanibel Island near Ft. Meyers at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. But, we were running out of daylight so decided to do that tomorrow morning, and stopped for the night at the south end of Ft. Meyers.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Florida Trip - Day 4

Monday, December 8, 2008

At sunrise we were entering St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and for the first time on the trip we encountered a more than a few waterbirds. We headed straight for the lighthouse to scan the Gulf of Mexico and saw some loons and grebes, as well as Oystercatchers and Brown Pelicans. It was surprising when a small group of American Goldfinches turned up with a Pine Siskin among them. This species is not on the bird checklist that is available here. Another siskin was at the Tower Trail restrooms, again with a group of goldfinches. More typical of Florida, we saw several American Anhingas (photo below) in the early morning cold (started at 32 degrees again today).

Many more familiar waterbirds were seen, including Lesser Scaup, Redheads, Canvasbacks, American Wigeons, Hooded Mergansers, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and quite a few Belted Kingfishers, like the one below.

Heading east, we stopped at the Goethe State Forest to check the Longleaf Pine woodlands for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches. We found the woodpecker nest trees, visible in the photo below marked by a white band near the base, but no woodpeckers. The nuthatches were more cooperative and allowed me to get sound recordings of their vocalizations.

And finally, a most interesting encounter. We encountered a baby of the possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, as seen in the photo below.

Those familiar with James Tanner's study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the 1930s will recognize my imitation of a photo in his book where he had two fledglings in his hat. This cute toy, which also gives accurate calls when squeezed, was available for sale at the St. Marks NWR gift shop. We stopped in Bayonet Point, Florida, for the night.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Florida Trip - Day 3

As we drove south out of Montgomery this morning, we saw our first signs of waterbirds with a small group of a dozen or so Great Blue Herons flying over the freeway. The temperature this morning was 32 degrees and all the vegetation was frosty though none of the water was frozen. We also saw a sign of the deep south, Spanish Moss draped all over the trees. We made our way into the Florida Panhandle, and drove around in the vicinity of the Choctawhatchee River, which is where there have been possible reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers recently. We didn't get so lucky, but did stand at a boat ramp that gave views off into the swamp. Even if the Ivory-bills no longer exist, standing in an area near where they once existed is still something I feel worthwhile doing.

From here we drove northeast to Florida Caverns State Park. We had information that the Georgia Blind Salamander was found here, so we thought we'd give it a try. Once there, they told us that it was in their cave system but only rarely was seen in the cave as the water table is usually too low. We tried our luck on the surface, finding one tiny Southeastern Slimy Salamander on a rock wall under some leaf litter, and this Green Anole (they're sold as "chamaeleons as they can change color) under a log.

From here we went back southeast to the Apalachicola National Forest where we had brief looks at two Red-cockaded Woodpeckers as they came in to roost for the night. No photos but I did manage to get a brief recording of their vocalizations. The temperature rose to 60 degrees today, we're definitely in Florida! We drove quite a ways in the dark to Medart, Florida for the night.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Florida Trip - Day 1 & 2

After having canceled two vacations this year, mainly due to the poor economy, we finally decided we could afford to get away for a few days and decided to drive to Florida and back, with no set itinerary.

Day 1, December 5, 2008
We left this morning at 7 a.m., with the temperature at 19 degrees. Today was mainly a travel day, so we didn't see too many birds other than the common roadside species including Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, American Crows, European Starlings, and of course Rock Pigeons. Once we crossed into Kentucky, we soon saw a couple of Black Vultures, and the first Loggerhead Shrike of the trip was near Sonora on the way to Louisville, where we stopped for gas. Thanks to driving a hybrid, we only used $14 worth of gas to drive from Detroit to Louisville. We also started seeing what I consider a sure sign of being in "the south", evergreen balls of mistletoe in the trees. We drove south from Louisville and got a room in Cave City, then went into Mammoth Cave National Park. We asked about tours for tomorrow, and also asked about salamanders. One helpful park person suggested we walk to the Three Springs area where there was flowing water out of a hillside, where hopefully there would be Spring Salamanders. No luck. The temperature never went above 32 today.

Day 2, December 6, 2008
We drove around in Mammoth Cave National Park for a while before our tour started at 10:15, with the best bird seen being the flock of about 15 Wild Turkeys. We decided to take a 2-hour tour that would optimize the time we had available with seeing the most formations. Photography was difficult in the dim light, but I did manage a few decent photos. One of these is below.

Nancy and I like caves because of the formations, but also because of the various creatures that can be seen inside, including some of our favorites, salamanders. This time, we were lucky enough to see a single spider, and Cave Crickets, which really looked more like brown, blind, katydids.

After lunch, we continued driving south, through Tennessee and into Alabama, where we stopped near Montgomery for the night. Temperatures are warming up, as we started at 28 and ended at about 45.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Three Rufous Hummingbirds

After the main Ruby-throated Hummingbird banding season, I typically spend a lot of time (and miles) chasing down and banding other species in Michigan, Ohio, and northern Indiana. Reports typically come in during October and November, but sometimes as early as August and as late as December. Last year (2007) I banded a record four in Michigan, but significantly fewer (two) in Ohio and none in northern Indiana. In 2006 there were again only two in Ohio, one in Indiana and none in Michigan. Prior to this recent dip in numbers, 5-6 in Ohio was expected and at least two in northern Indiana. So far this year, I've banded three Rufous Hummingbirds, one in Ohio and two in Michigan. One other Rufous was banded in southwestern Ohio by Tim Tolford and one Rufous was banded in southern Indiana by Cathie Hutcheson. Here, I provide photos and brief details of the three Rufous Hummingbirds I've banded so far.

Adult female Rufous Hummingbird in Bexley, Franklin Co., OH
First Observed: mid-October 2008 (?), Last Observed: 5 December 2008+

On November 14, I arrived at the home of JoAnn LaMuth, where several local birders, and a reporter and photographer from the Columbus Dispatch had assembled. Now, 95% of the Rufous Hummingbirds I've banded have taken 5-10 minutes to enter the trap. This one took a full 2 1/2 hours! This allowed us to discuss many, many aspects of hummingbird biology, and birding, with the newspaper folks. About a minute before I was ready to quit, the bird arrived (5 hours after the last sighting) and went into the trap. Note in the photo below that she is missing quite a few feathers on her lower throat. This is something I associate with a minor mite infestation, but I can't say for sure what the cause might be on this bird.

The shapes and widths of the tail feathers are important criteria for identifying these birds. The second tail feather from the center on this bird was broken off on one side, and very slightly "notched" on the other side, which is characteristic of Rufous. The width of the outer tail feather was 3.63mm, which also is characteristically wide enough for Rufous.

Adult female Rufous Hummingbird in Shields, Saginaw Co., MI
First Observed: mid-October 2008 (?), Last Observed: 5 December 2008+
This bird, at the home of Bernie Coleman, was very cooperative, going into the trap within 10 minutes of my setting up the trap. She had a total of 17 iridescent gorget feathers, which is about typical of an adult female (ranging from 7-21).

Females are consistently entirely green above, from forehead to tail tip, with no rufous visible on the base of the central tail feathers.

The second tail feather of this female was more noticeably notched than the Ohio bird, and the outer tail feather was measured at 3.48 mm (it looks narrower in the photo below due to the angle I'm holding it at), wide enough to confirm Rufous. This bird also showed a molt pattern on the primaries that I've come to consider normal in this region, as 95% of them have shown it. The outer 4 primaries were old and all the inners were new and recently replaced.

Adult male Rufous Hummingbird in Holland, Ottawa Co., MI
First Observed: 7 November 2008, Last Observed: 5 December 2008+

It has been a while since I banded an adult male Rufous in the region. This bird was coming to the feeders of Nancy Gillis, who photographed it quite nicely, and who generously allowed me to come and band the bird on December 1. This bird was very anxious to go into the trap, and flew up before I had the door propped open. Within two minutes, he was in-hand being measured and photographed. He had the full gorget of an adult male, though the lighting did not allow the iridescent color to be seen.
The entirely rufous-brown back made the identification easy. Note the snow in the background, almost certainly not the first this adult has seen in its lifetime.

The pointed tail feathers without any white tips is also characteristic of an adult male. And, the second tail feather is described as "notched" in this species, but as the photo shows it appears more like a couple of bites have been taken out of it. Weird.

Whenever possible, I try to allow the homeowners to "release" their hummingbird. In the photo below, Nancy got a few seconds of "hand time" with her adult male Rufous, which bolted into a large tree in the yard and was back at the feeder (trap removed) within minutes.