Sunday, February 15, 2015

January Getaway - Part 1

As winter descended on Michigan, the desire to leave was getting stronger every day. So, as a follow-up to our wild goose chase in December, we were looking for someplace to go to the south that had some new ABA birds. More than a dozen species were showing up on the alerts, including birds in Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas, Nova Scotia, and Florida. With a target list of 7 species, Florida was chosen. Those targets were (*lifers): Egyptian Goose (newly added to the "countable" ABA list), American Flamingo, Black Rail*, Purple Swamphen, Key West Quail-Dove*, Black-hooded Parakeet*, and Budgerigar*. We had a few other goals too, including staying warm, taking photos, and looking for other things like reptiles, amphibians, and some interesting plants. So, the trip started with a couple of long days of driving through bleak country (but very beautiful at other seasons) before we encountered liquid water again, and it was finally in southern Georgia that we saw one good sign of the deep south, Baldcypress trees, albeit bare of leaves, but still covered with Spanish Moss.
Banks Lake NWR, Georgia

The next day (January 18) was our first chance to do some birding, in north Florida. No target birds this morning, but we did have a good time driving around in the pine-woods; habitat for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman's Sparrow.
Osceola National Forest, Florida

One of the first birds encountered here was a Pileated Woodpecker, feeding on berries in a flimsy shrub. Not at all the typical behavior we're used to.
Pileated Woodpecker. Osceola NF, Florida

There were several groups of Brown-headed Nuthatches, and I managed an OK shot of one as it foraged lower than the rest.
Brown-headed Nuthatch. Osceola NF, Florida

Two pairs of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were found; the easiest ones to photograph were along the main highway, not back on the forest roads.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Osceola NF, Florida

It was a LOT more work trying to get a Bachman's Sparrow to respond to tape playback, but one did pop up eventually for a few seconds. No photos of course. In the afternoon, we made our first attempt for Black Rail at Lake Woodruff NWR. We stayed in the area, walking the dikes, until right before the gates closed at sunset. Sadly, no Black Rails called, but a Virginia Rail did. Black Rail is a jinx bird for us, as we've looked for it several times in Florida, as well as in North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and California. So this miss was typical, but we still had a few other places to check over the next few days.

On January 19, we headed to the Atlantic coast at the Canaveral National Seashore. Among the first birds was saw were Fish Crows, in calling flocks.
Fish Crow. Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

At an observation deck there were Turkey Vultures sunning themselves in the cool air (it was in the 40s, but nicer than at home). They took off at my approach, but circled around VERY closely.
Turkey Vulture. Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

Along the shoreline, there was a good view of the beach and an elevated location to watch for interesting birds. Many jaegers can be seen here in the right weather conditions; but those conditions were not present today. But there were flocks of Northern Gannets, with perhaps 500 following a fishing trawler.
Northern Gannets. Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

In the low vegetation among the dunes, our first butterfly of the trip was a Gulf Fritillary. It is amazing what a wonderful feeling a single butterfly can give a person in the middle of winter.
Gulf Fritillary. Canaveral National Seashore, Florida.

Along the causeways, we started seeing the common Boat-tailed Grackle, which presented themselves for photos at one spot where there was a small pullout.
Male Boat-tailed Grackle. Canaveral area, Florida

Female Boat-tailed Grackle. Canaveral area, Florida.

Our next destination was the Meritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to luck into a Black Rail and photograph whatever else we could. The loop road was crowded, as it was a Sunday, but there was still a lot to see. Snowy Egrets greeted us right at the start.
Snowy Egret. Merritt Island NWR, Florida

A couple of Reddish Egrets were found here, but an overzealous "tourist" went running across the road with his camera and tripod to photograph a Great Blue Heron, and flushed them before I got a decent shot. He never even knew they were there apparently. About half way around the loop, there was a short boardwalk where a cooperative Brown Anole was sunning itself.
Brown Anole. Merritt Island NWR, Florida

And several Great Southern Whites, our second butterfly species of the trip, were feeding on the blooming Bidens adjacent to the parking lot.
Great Southern White. Merritt Island NWR, Florida

Near the headquarters area, our first good view of a Wood Stork was this one in the ditch along the roadside.
Wood Stork. Merritt Island NWR, Florida

We then headed back inland to a small pond southwest of Orlando where there had been a report of Black Rails a week or so earlier. We walked all around this pond and marsh, which was adjacent to a housing development, but had no luck. 0 for 3 on the Black Rails so far.

 One of our first stops on January 20 was the Archbold Biological Station, north of Venus, Florida. This is where much of the ground-breaking and long-term studies of the Florida Scrub-Jay have been conduced. We did manage to see a couple of them along the road, but the biggest surprise was coming across an absolute cloud of birds just north of Venus. They were Tree Swallows, and the photos below each can show only about 20% of the birds that were present. An amazing sight.
Tree Swallows near Venus, Florida

Tree Swallows near Venus, Florida

Continuing south, we found a couple of Crested Caracaras, both too skittish to be photographed. We then got into the agricultural land near Lake Okeechobee, much of which is now closed to driving (back in 1978 we could drive almost anywhere). It was our hope to run across Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, but only had a small flyover flock of Black-bellied. I do not have a decent photo of Fulvous Whistling-Duck. That apparently will have to wait for another day. There were lots of other birds around, but much of the area was difficult to bird, so we headed to a spot where we could access part of the Loxahatchee NWR.
Little Blue Heron. STA1, Florida

Once we got there, it started to rain a bit (it had been overcast all day), but it soon stopped. A pair of Black-hooded Parakeets were noisy and easy to see, but this species might only be ABA "countable" on the Gulf side of the state, so although I entered them into eBird, these don't count as a new ABA bird. So, we're still 0 for 7 on the target birds for the trip, but still having a good time. We walked around a dike and saw a few birds, including some cooperative Limpkins.
Limpkin. Loxahatchee NWR, Florida

Limpkin. Loxahatchee NWR, Florida

In the next installment, which I'll post in a couple of days, we head into South Florida.

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