Monday, February 23, 2015

January Getaway - Part 4

On January 25, we headed northeast from north-central Florida to the Jacksonville area. A Purple Sandpiper had been seen at Fort Clinch State Park, at the northeastern-most point of Florida. Walking out on the jetty there, a lot of Ruddy Turnstones were roosting on the rocks, and eventually among them the Purple was found, though rather hidden. At the end of the jetty, a group of four Black Scoters (3 females, 1 male) were more cooperative for the camera.
Black Scoters. Fort Clinch SP, FL

Black Scoters. Fort Clinch SP, FL

Eventually the male cooperated and came closer.
Black Scoter. Fort Clinch SP, FL

We then went north into Georgia, and stopped at Harris Neck NWR. The last time we were here, there was storm damage and the loop road was closed. It was open this time, and there were a few birds around, including Roseate Spoonbills, a new species for our Georgia list. But not much was photogenic there. We continued into southeastern South Carolina. A lot of driving today, not much birding.

On January 26, we continued north into the east-central coast of South Carolina. In the 1980s, we were here in spring and had a Red-cockaded Woodpecker fly right over the freeway through the Francis Marion National Forest. This time, we decided to explore an area that is hallowed ground for birders, the I'On Swamp, where one of the last confirmed sightings of the now-extinct Bachman's Warbler occurred. There was a trail to walk in this area, though it was not too likely the exact place where the sighting occurred.
I'On Swamp Trailhead. Francis Marion NF, SC

The habitat was a fairly typical southeastern swamp, with Tupelo, Baldcypress, and Saw Palmetto.
I'On Swamp. Francis Marion NF, SC

But an important component that the Bachman's Warbler apparently needed, canebrakes, large areas of cane grass, were pretty much gone. Along the road in to the trailhead, there were only a few pitiful scattered individual Giant Cane plants (Arudinaria gigantea).
I'On Swamp with cane. Francis Marion NF, SC

As is our habit in woods with fallen logs, we turned a few over, and fairly soon found a beautiful Marbled Salamander under one, reminding us that they are fall breeders and active in winter some places. We had only seen a handful of them before.
Marbled Salamander. I'On Swamp, SC

Under another log was a rather plain salamander, definitely not a mole salamander type, but a woodland salamander. With some handling, it exuded a sticky white slime that we've come to associate with the Slimy Salamander, and decided that's what it was. Further research indicated it was a lifer, the South Carolina Slimy Salamander, which is most often considered a full species since the taxonomy of Slimy Salamander resulted in a 12-way split a few years ago.
South Carolina Slimy Salamander. I'On Swamp, SC

We next headed to Huntington Beach State Park, just to look for birds that might pad my South Carolina List. There was a nice jetty there, but it turned out that it was a long walk down the beach to get to the base of it. On the way there, shorebirds were here and there along the beach, including a cooperative Piping Plover.
Piping Plover. Huntington Beach SP, SC

Piping Plover. Huntington Beach SP, SC

I managed to sneak up fairly close to a group of Red Knots on the sand.
Red Knots. Huntington Beach SP, SC

Red Knots. Huntington Beach, SP, SC

Red Knot. Huntington Beach SP, SC

Red Knot. Huntington Beach SP, SC

At the base of the jetty, there were a few Sanderlings.
Sanderling. Huntington Beach SP, SC

Sanderling. Huntington Beach SP, SC

Once on the jetty, the birds got farther away, but interesting sightings included a pair of Long-tailed Ducks, and a male Common Eider, both very uncommon this far south along the Atlantic Coast.

January 27 was going to be mostly driving, but first we stopped at an area on extreme southeastern North Carolina, the Green Swamp, and found a parking area for the Nature Conservancy's property there The objective was to perhaps see if we could find a federally endangered plant, the Venus Flytrap, which is endemic to the coastal plain of NC and SC. But it was chilly and windy, with no good information on where to go, so we decided not to walk the trail there. Helping our decision was some timely information from a friend and fellow hummingbird bander, Susan Campbell, who mentioned another location for the plant. Surprisingly, that location was a state park with a trail actually named the Flytrap Trail. And, the naturalist at the nature center was more than willing to let us know where we had to go on that trail to see one. Despite this good information, it took nearly a half our to find one of these small plants, with their toothy leaves at most an inch across. But what a great sight to finally see! It is endangered due to over-collecting. Hopefully this population is well protected.
Venus Flytrap.

From there we headed home, across North Carolina to Virgina and into West Virginia. The next day was an all-driving day into increasingly wintry conditions.

Friday, February 20, 2015

January Getaway - Part 3

On January 23, we decided to go to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary first, mainly because we'd been doing a lot of driving and not much walking the past couple of days. It was a really nice walk around the boardwalk and although there weren't too many birds, it was nice to be among the tall Baldcypress trees with epiphytes, and even a few orchids, on them. A Clamshell Orchid was in bloom, but was too far away to get a decent photo. A male Painted Bunting had been reported at the feeders near the visitor's center, but it never showed while we were watching.
Ancient Baldcypress at Corkscrew Swamp, FL

From there we headed west toward Sanibel Island, but with a stop first at Bunche Beach. When we were hear in 2009, there was very little parking available, and the fee was $8, and what it looked like was a lot of  non-birders on the beach, so we skipped it. This time, the parking meters were broken, so it was free! And once you got past the first crowd of beach bums, it was about 1/4 mile walk to an area where there was a bunche of shorebirds. People walking by seemed to disturb them only a little, and in fact there was one guy sleeping maybe 20 feet away from them.
Shorebird flock at Bunche Beach, FL

There were a lot more birds here than it first appeared. Click here to view my eBird checklist for this location. It was a bit challenging to try to separate individuals out for photos, but I worked at it for a while and had some good success. The most numerous species in the flock was Willet.
Willet at Bunche Beach, FL

Next most numerous was a surprisingly well-hidden group of Black Skimmers.
Black Skimmers at Bunche Beach, FL

Mostly sleeping, Marbled Godwits stayed mostly in the back of the group, except for one cooperative individual.
Marbled Godwit at Bunche Beach, FL

Smaller numbers of other species were around the fringes of this sleeping flock, including a dowitcher that I'm pretty sure is a Short-billed.
Short-billed Dowitcher at Bunche Beach, FL

A couple smaller shorebirds turned out to be Western Sandpipers, which have been much less numerous on this trip than on any previous trip we've taken here.
Western Sandpiper at Bunche Beach, FL

From here it was a short drive to the causeway to Sanibel Island. Anyone who has birded in Florida before knows to check out the causeways, and to pull off anywhere it is possible. This causeway had good access, and a few shorebirds. Photo highlights from here though were two gulls, one very common (Laughing) with several plumages present, and a much rarer Lesser Black-backed Gull.
First winter Laughing Gull. Sanibel Causeway, FL

There seemed to be very few young Laughing Gulls on this trip. Most were adults in winter plumage.
Winter adult Laughing Gull, Sanibel Causeway, FL

One Laughing Gull at this spot was getting quite a bit of its summer black hood; very unusual I thought for January.
Molting adult Laughing Gull, Sanibel Causeway, FL

The Lesser Black-backed was an adult, and a new species for our Florida list.
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sanibel Causeway, FL

Once we got onto Sanibel Island, and worked our way through the heavy traffic, we got to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where we'd hoped to drive the very birdy auto loop road. Unfortunately it was Friday, the only day of the week this road is closed! It pays to check ahead, I guess, but there's very little we could have done to alter our schedule anyway. Even a trail near the end of this loop, which had been hosting a White-crowned Pigeon, was also closed despite the ABA guide (published in 2005) suggesting there was a way to walk this trail anyway. Staff said no way, so we walked a different trail where one highlight was a red morph Eastern Screech-Owl roosting in a palm tree right next to the boardwalk.
Eastern Screech-Owl, Ding Darling NWR, FL

Another highlight was a group of bathing Roseate Spoonbills, which were very photogenic.
Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling NWR, FL

Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling NWR, FL

Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling NWR, FL

Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling NWR, FL

Other waterbirds were in short supply along this short trail, so we were directed to the Bailey Tract of the refuge, which was about a mile away from the main refuge. There were dikes here with marsh and open water, but not many waterbirds unfortunately. The highlight here was another butterfly species, one that tends to be only in tropical and subtropical regions, a White Peacock.
White Peacock, Ding Darling NWR, FL

We crawled through the traffic and got off the island, and stayed the night somewhere north of Fort Meyers. The next day, January 24, we made a long drive north to Bradenton, and drove across the Sunshine Skyway, stopping at all the pullouts on both sides to check for birds. Unfortunately, it was very chilly (in the 40s) and VERY windy, overcast, and raining. This didn't bode well for birding on Mullet Key and Fort DeSoto State Park. As we got closer, the rain stopped and the wind subsided a bit, though it was still overcast. Just before the causeway across to the island, in front of an apartment complex, we found a flock of perhaps 75 Nanday (Black-hooded) Parakeets.
Nanday Parakeet, Tierra Verde, FL

Unlike the ones we saw on the east side of the state, these were for sure ABA countable! ABA bird #692.
Nanday Parakeet, Tierra Verde, FL

The causeway across to Mullet Key had a few birds, the most accessible for photos being Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns.
Brown Pelican, Fort DeSoto causeway, FL

Royal Terns, Fort DeSoto causeway, FL

At Fort DeSoto, the clouds broke up only a little, and it was still windy, but dry. Checking the shorelines on the west side of the island turned up little except large breakers on the beach. A walk along a bike path to search for a previously reported Groove-billed Ani turned up a few birds, but not the Ani. This would have been a new bird for my Florida list as it has become more common there in recent years, while the Smooth-billed Ani has become scarce (fairly easy to find in the 1970s and 1980s). So, we went to the eastern end of the island and found a beach with a bunch of shorebirds, including one that I had not photographed before; Wilson's Plover.
Wilson's Plover, Fort DeSoto SP, FL

The distinctive large bill was not as obvious when they were among other shorebirds as a couple other characters. Wilson's Plovers are very distinctly more long-legged and short-tailed than other small plovers with them, which included Semipalmated and Piping Plovers.
Wilson's Plover, Fort DeSoto SP, FL

Wilson's Plover, Fort DeSoto SP, FL

One of the Piping Plovers on the beach had colored leg bands and leg flags. I've reported this bird to the Bird Banding Lab, but have not heard back yet where it was banded. Chances are, it was in northern Michigan as west Florida and the Panhandle seem to be places where our birds winter.
Banded Piping Plover, Fort DeSoto SP, FL

We continued north to Honeymoon Island State Park, where we hoped to see more shorebirds. But when we got there, it was difficult to find the beach where we'd had good success photographing plovers and an American Oystercatcher back in 2009. In the nature center, we were told that a storm had messed up most of the beaches on the island. Too bad. A consolation was getting a really good look at a couple of Common Ground-Doves.
Common Ground-Dove, Honeymoon Island SP, FL

From here we went north and stopped at a couple more spots for shorebirds, before heading to Hernando Beach, where our 7th target bird of the trip had been seen in the past. In 1978, Budgerigars were known to be in Miami in flocks of 1000 or more, and in an ABA guide from 1984, western Florida was known to have "flocks of thousands" in localized areas. Now, however, numbers have dwindled to the point that it is very difficult to find them. We only made a half-hearted effort in 1978 and missed them. We spent over an hour driving around the residential area of Hernando Beach, without success. As it was getting to dusk, we stopped to ask an older couple, who had bird feeders behind their house, if they'd seen any parakeets lately. They were very friendly, and said they'd not seen them in a couple years. This was our only chance for Budgerigar on the trip, so this was a clean miss.

The next installment of this blog will take us out of Florida and back home, with some highlights yet to come. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

January Getaway - Part 2

After we left Loxahatchee NWR, we headed south past West Palm Beach and Miami. The plan was to stop at some likely looking places for two of our target birds, Egyptian Goose and Purple Swamphen. According to eBird, there were dozens of places to find them in this area. Unfortunately, the terrible traffic slowed us down a lot, and a couple places we did check, with small ponds, did not have any geese nor any habitat for the swamphens. We ended up at a motel just west of Miami Airport well after dark. This changed our plans, which had been to get to Homestead and head into the Keys tomorrow.

Instead, on January 21 we headed to the Dolphin Mall, which although only a few miles from the motel, took over an hour to get to because of the horrific gridlock that seems to plague all of south Florida in winter. There had been a recent report in eBird of 5 or 6 Purple Swamphens (an introduced exotic) in the two ponds at this mall, and when we got there it was great to see a number of other birds, as well as at least 13 swamphens. We'd bagged our first target bird of the trip; ABA species number 689.
Purple Swamphen at Dolphin Mall, Miami, Florida.

At this point, it was getting late in the morning, so we decided to get down to Homestead, and go into Everglades NP instead, which was on the itinerary for the next day, but our target bird in the Keys was being seen most consistently at 8 a.m., so we needed to get there at that time. We did have a good time in the Everglades, and it gave us a couple more chances to try for Black Rail in the evening.
Everglades National Park, Florida

First, we went to Anhinga Trail, where we saw the usual wonderful array of birds and wildlife. Just before the turnout, there was a nice Red-shouldered Hawk right next the road. It was one of the pale Florida subspecies.
Red-shouldered Hawk. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

Red-shouldered Hawk. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

Of course, the namesake of the trail was numerous, though there seemed to be no nests right next to the boardwalk as had been the case a few years ago when we were last here.
Anhinga. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

Anhinga. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

Double-crested Cormorants were extremely within 3 feet, and even that didn't wake them up from snoozing. I've seen it before, but always enjoy seeing their emerald green eyes.
Double-crested Cormorant. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

At the far end of the trail there was a pile of American Alligators. Literally...
American Alligators. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

Other closely approachable waterbirds here included Tricolored Herons and a single Wood Stork.
Tricolored Heron. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

Wood Stork. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

And a nice adult Purple Gallinule put on a good show as it swam from water lily to water lily,
Purple Gallinule. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

What initially appeared like stumbling around on the lilies may have actually been a strategy to flip up the edges to uncover aquatic invertebrates clinging to the undersides of the leaves.
Purple Gallinule. Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, FL

On the way to the southern portion of the park, at Flamingo, we stopped at a few more pullouts but didn't see too much except a few coots, Green-winged Teal, and a few more Red-shouldered Hawks.
Red-shouldered Hawk. Everglades NP, FL

At the visitor's center at Flamingo, we checked to see if the American Flamingo was out in Florida Bay. It was not. There had not been an eBird report in a couple of days. So now there were only 5 more possible ABA target birds possible to find. We had two places in the park to check for Black Rail. one was the Coastal Prairie Trail at the west end of the Flamingo campground. We were going to walk this trail out perhaps 1/2 mile, where rails had been reported in recent days. But it was still early afternoon, so we drove all the way back to Homestead and got our motel, then headed all the way back down. At Flamingo, we checked out a report of an American Crocodile, which was loafing rather close to a trail near the marina.
American Crocodile. Everglades NP, FL

Then, a second crocodile was seen swimming in the channel.
American Crocodile. Everglades NP, FL

And then a big surprise; it swam over to one of the fishing boats that had just come in, and just sat there right at our feet! The captain said that they seem to like the fresh water that they dump out of the ice chests. Back in 1978, the first time we went to Florida, American Crocodiles were critically endangered and it was impossible to see one. In 1988, we got information about a crocodile that was hanging around on Key Largo, and we felt honored to see it from a distance. But this experience was amazing!
American Crocodile. Everglades NP, FL

Our walk along the Coastal Prairie Trail was full of mosquitos, but unfortunately no Black Rails. The park naturalists told us that using tapes were absolutely NOT allowed on this trail, but it appears that some entering their sightings in eBird have done so anyway. On the long drive out of the park, we had been told that Black Rails were sometimes heard at Mahogony Hammock, about 3/4 of the way back to the park entrance. The only bird we had here was a nice Barred Owl sitting on a snag next to the road, in the dark, and about a zillion more mosquitoes than on the previous trail. A consolation was getting a nice look at Comet Lovejoy, which was visible to the naked eye in the amazing darkness of the Everglades sky, and a fuzzy green blob with a very short tail in binoculars.

We left early in the morning on January 22, heading for Long Key State Park, slightly less than half way to Key West from Homestead. Once the sun came up, we saw an occasional Magnificent Frigatebird, and on the wires were tons of Eurasian Collared-Doves. When we arrived at 7:50 a.m. the park gate was closed, and we were the 6th car in line to get in. All birders. The Key West Quail-Dove was still being seen daily, along the first few yards of the Golden Orb Trail, but with almost no reports after 9 a.m. We got organized and started out on the trail. Several others had raced down the trail ahead of us, but we crept along quietly, checking anything moving in the leaf litter. Hermit Crabs were making distracting rustling sounds, but about 50 yards in on the trail, at about 8:15, there he/she was! Walking in the leaf litter, in dense undergrowth, about 50 feet away. It was in view for only about 30 seconds, so it was not possible to get a photo. But we had ABA bird #690, and this one was also a lifer! We ran into a nice gentleman who missed the bird when we'd just seen it (a handful of others had seen it walking away a bit farther up the trail), and he'd tried to see the bird 13 times. So we were quite lucky. The only bird photo taken in the Keys was a dark morph Short-tailed Hawk that was circling over the Walgreens parking lot on Upper Metacumbe Key.
Short-tailed Hawk. Upper Metacumbe Key, FL

We headed back north, planning to stop briefly at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to check for Black-whiskered Vireos and possibly a lingering White-crowned Pigeon or Mangrove Cuckoo. But the entry fee was $10, and the $8 entry fee we'd just paid at Long Key State Park a couple hours before would not get us into this park. What a racket! So, we passed on that and headed to our next stakeout, a small lake (Kendall Lakes) in the town of Kendall, north of Homestead, where there had been a report of a couple dozen Egyptian Geese. But first, we stopped to get gas in Homestead, and noticed some strange starling-like birds walking around the parking lot. They were Common Mynas, an ABA "countable" species, and introduced exotic, that we'd seen in Florida before (and in Nepal).
Common Myna. Homestead, FL

Common Myna. Homestead, FL

Within a minute of arriving at Kendall Lakes, we had our target bird (ABA #691), a single Egyptian Goose sitting casually on the lawn. Here, and in the adjacent residential area, we found more than two-dozen of them.
Egyptian Goose. Kendall Lakes, FL

There were other birds here as well, including quite a few Muscovy Ducks, another introduced exotic which is apparently now ABA "countable" in Florida, but not a new one for us as we'd seen a wild one along the Rio Grande in Texas many years ago. Most of them were quite patchy with white, and only a couple approached the "wild" appearance, including this one.
Muscovy Duck. Kendall Lakes, FL

Other tame, and native, species that were here included some Fish Crows, and a bunch of begging White Ibises that allowed very close approach.
Fish Crow. Kendall Lakes, FL.

Note the very short legs on the Fish Crow above, a character distinguishing it from American Crow. And, you've gotta love those pale blue eyes on the pink face of the White Ibis below.
White Ibis. Kendall Lakes, FL

The video below shows how tame these birds were here.

Next, we headed west along the Tamiami Trail, stopping at the traditional spot near Shark Valley (parking was full so we didn't stop as planned), where we saw a Snail Kite.
Snail Kite. Shark Valley, FL

And at the visitor's center for the Big Cypress Reserve, a nice volunteer naturalist pointed out a Florida Softshell Turtle to us.
Florida Softshell Turtle. Big Cypress Reserve, FL

Near Naples, we decided to go south to Marco Island to check out waterbirds and shorebirds. We navigated through the heavy construction on the island to Tigertail Beach, where there was a parking fee of $8, and the lot appeared full, with lots of beach walkers and no birders. It didn't look like our kind of place, so we drove around a bit, and found a few Burrowing Owls, which were using vacant lots in the residential areas to nest; a very strange situation.
Burrowing Owl. Marco Island, FL

Out east of town, we saw a hawk on a wire that turned out to be a Broad-winged Hawk, a species that is quite rare anywhere in the U.S. in winter. So it is good I took a photo!
Broad-winged Hawk. Marco Island, FL

We stopped in the Naples area for the night, with plans to work up the Gulf Coast of Florida tomorrow. That will be where we start in Part 3 when I post in a couple days.