Sunday, June 29, 2014

Central Florida

Towards the end of June, Jen had a work conference down in Orlando, and they very kindly paid for me to go along with her, which was essentially a free ticket for me to go birding in a completely new region while she was in session during the day. How can you beat that?? Neither of us had ever set foot in Florida before, so it was all new terrain for us.

We arrived midmorning on Wednesday the 18th well before being able to check in to our hotel, so we headed east to explore Merritt Island NWR for the day. The drive out was wonderfully lacking in other vehicles, making for a smooth trip out to this interesting blend of protected habitat. We began on the Scrub Trail, where I was looking for a lifer, and apparently Jen was looking harder. After fruitlessly searching for a while and already beginning to feel the force of the Florida sun in June, we turned around and Jen said, "What's that?" "Where, down in the bush?" I asked. "No, right there in the top of that bush." She was pointing at a bird in plain sight about 10 feet from my head, and of course it was my lifer Florida Scrub Jay. I will never cease congratulating her on finding my first Florida lifer.


Florida Scrub Jay
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014

Biolab Road was our next stop, where we had great looks at almost all the expected waders - Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret, my lifer Wood Storks and a cool "Wurdemann's" Great Blue Heron. Jen really enjoyed the spoonbills, and I was loving getting to see so many waders so well - reminded me of trips to Texas as a kid when ditches full of herons, egrets, and spoonbills played a major role in securing my lifelong avian obsession from a very early age.


Tricolored Heron
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014

Wood Storks
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014


Roseate Spoonbill
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014

"Wurdemann's" Great Blue Heron 
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014



Snowy Egret
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014

One of the reasons we picked Merritt Island NWR was the potential of seeing Manatee, which neither of us had ever done before. They couldn't have been easier to find! We just pulled up to the parking area at Haulover Canal, walked to the viewing platform, and there just below us was a group of five West Indian Manatees! These large sea cows just loafed along, dipping down for food and occasionally coming up for air. It was amazing how gentle they seemed for being such large creatures!



West Indian Manatee
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014

We eventually left these guys in peace and headed back towards Orlando, picking up the first of many Cattle Egrets for the trip while still in the refuge, and a friendly Snowy Egret right below our lunch location, where Jen again saw a bird that flew right over my head - the first Black Skimmer of the trip. Least Terns were flying all around here as well. I love being in a place where your Wendy's parking lot list is peppered with these kinds of sweet birds.

Cattle Egret
Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014



Snowy Egret
Titusville, Brevard Co, FL
June 18, 2014

On the way to Lake Tohopekaliga, my lifer Swallow-tailed Kite flew over, and it took all the self control in me to keep from pulling over to watch it. Thankfully it was not the last of the trip. My least exciting lifer of the trip came next as the now feral-but-countable Muscovy Ducks sat in a roadside pond near the lake. It took 0% of restraint to keep from pulling over to get better looks at them. The next two lifers were much higher quality, though. As I scoped the lake, I came across a group of Limpkins! The nearby marsh had a nice assortment of waders as well, and a few Fulvous Whistling Ducks, which weren't lifers but very nice year birds. As I continued to scan, I spotted a silvery gray raptor sitting on a low snag along the far shore - a distant but decent look at my lifer Snail Kite! Not long after I got to watch a second one in flight, showing that obvious white rump well. After all the Mississippi Kites in southern Illinois the previous week, the bulky wing profile and slower paced wingbeats of the Snail Kite really stood out to me - I then began reflecting on just how distinct every kite species that we get is from the others.

Mottled Duck, Limpkin, and Fulvous Whistling Duck
Lake Tohopekaliga, Osceola Co, FL
June 18, 2014

Fulvous Whistling Duck
Lake Tohopekaliga, Osceola Co, FL
June 18, 2014

Limpkin and Black-necked Stilt
Lake Tohopekaliga, Osceola Co, FL
June 18, 2014

Snail Kite
Lake Tohopekaliga, Osceola Co, FL
June 18, 2014


Limpkin
Lake Tohopekaliga, Osceola Co, FL
June 18, 2014

Six lifers on the first day, a nice kickstart to the Florida trip!

Thursday, June 19: Jen's conference began this morning, and after dropping her off I headed northwest to Withlacoochee State Forest with two greatly desired lifers on my mind. I had a hard time finding them, but the birding in the meantime was pretty good as I picked up Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Pine Warblers, Northern Parula, plentiful White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos and had some nice looks at a couple Red-shouldered Hawks.

Pine Warbler
Withlacoochee State Forest, Hernando Co, FL
June 19, 2014

Summer Tanager
Withlacoochee State Forest, Hernando Co, FL
June 19, 2014

The heat + humidity + bug combo was making the midmorning search rather unpleasant, as was my complete lack of familiarity with the area. Eventually I found what I was looking for - Trail 9. The recent eBird reports had mentioned this area, so it seemed promising. And it turned out to be a road rather than a trail, giving me the chance to cover ground in a more efficient manner. I trolled along with the windows down, constantly batting insects away. Then finally, the call notes of a woodpecker, and they sounded right for the bird I was looking for. I got out and put my binoculars on the first woodpecker I saw, and for the first time in my life I was a little disappointed to see a Red-headed Woodpecker. But then I heard the call again, and it wasn't coming from the bird I was looking at. Some movement above my head caught my eye, and I started watching a little black and white woodpecker scurry along a branch, and eventually it came into view well enough for me to see that white cheek patch, Red-cockaded Woodpecker! There ended up being a group of three that I got to watch for a while.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Withlacoochee State Forest, Hernando Co, FL
June 19, 2014

Then, as I was finishing up my checklist I heard my first Bachman's Sparrow sound off nearby. Two lifers in one spot!


Bachman's Sparrow
Withlacoochee State Forest, Hernando Co, FL
June 19, 2014

Next it was on to the Lake Lindsey Boat Ramp, where I had a calling Purple Gallinule and a couple more common species.

Boat-tailed Grackle
Lake Lindsey, Hernando Co, FL
June 19, 2014

Common Gallinule
Lake Lindsey, Hernando Co, FL
June 19, 2014

All of this took longer than I expected, so my time to finish out my remaining target locations was fading quickly. A quick stop at Werner-Boyce got me some conspicuously calling Seaside Sparrows and Clapper Rails, the Seaside giving its classic Ammodramus, insect-like call. Another quick stop at Robert K. Rees got me my first Prairie Warbler of the trip, more Clapper Rails, and a very pleasant surprise - my lifer Gray Kingbird!

Gray Kingbird
Robert K. Rees, Pasco Co, FL
June 19, 2014

The lifers were fantastic, and I added some really nice year birds too, but the driving-to-birding ratio was a little out of whack, which is not my favorite. And the driving down there is, well, interesting. Florida has this cool thing where the roads are flat and have no potholes, which is a true delight for a northern Illinois resident originally from eastern Washington - neither place being particularly famous for their smooth roads. Unfortunately, the quality of drivers in Florida is perfectly disproportionate to the quality of their roads. Down there, you dodge cars instead of potholes. Also, significant portions of the state missed the memo on intersections where cars from opposite directions go at the same time, so you literally have to wait at some lights up to five minutes - when that's digging into birding time, it's really not my favorite. All in all I was pretty exhausted by the end of the day, but it's still pretty hard to complain about a lifer Red-cockaded Woodpecker!

 Friday, June 20: Determined to not make the same mistake from the previous day, I picked just a couple locations that I wanted to hit, and decided to spend all my time in a relatively small area - Pinellas county. It ended up being my favorite day of the trip, and not just because of the birds.

Once I reached Pinellas County, I had a pair of my lifer Nanday Parakeets fly over the car - bright green with an all black hood, pretty cool looking. Like the Monk Parakeet (and, let's be honest, a ridiculous number of other birds in Florida), the Nanday Parakeet is established and countable down in those parts. The only unfortunate thing for me is that this was the 700th bird for my world life list, a milestone I really didn't want to achieve with an exotic, but oh well. It was also #580 for the ABA for me.

Shortly after, I had a group of Magnificent Frigatebirds hawking over a little pond in a housing development - they were still there on the way back and I got better pictures then. I had only seen one frigatebird before at Packery Channel in Texas with my dad and uncle ten years ago. That was a distant flyover, though still an awesome bird to see. I had no way of preparing for the staggering numbers and views I would have of these prehistoric beasts on this trip.

There were more frigatebirds at Fort de Soto, along with amazing amounts of Loggerhead Shrikes. In Illinois, Loggerheads are sparse and extremely habitat specific. In Florida, not so much. They're abundant and hang out just about anywhere. Pretty sweet trash bird. I had been seeing some nice shorebird reports coming from this park recently, so I was pleased to come upon the protected area at North Beach, which had a loaded sandbar. It was birding at its most leisurely pace - shorts and flip flops along a white sand beach, wading through warm knee deep water to walk to another equally beautiful sandbar. And the protected area meant that there weren't even that many people around. This first photo has a white morph Reddish Egret, Willets, Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover, and Laughing Gull.

Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Other birds around included Short-billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Wilson's Plovers, Snowy Egrets, and my only Yellow-crowned Night Heron of the trip.

Snowy Egret
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Laughing Gull
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014


Reddish Egret
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Marbled Godwit
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

I was so pumped to get to photograph Wilson's Plovers well. It had been ten years since I had seen my first.







Wilson's Plover
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Eventually a lone Black Skimmer dropped in and did his skimming thing for a while in the pool nearest me. Yet another bird I have missed seeing for a long time.





Black Skimmer
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

I finally came upon one of my other main targets for this day: American Oystercatchers!

American Oystercatcher
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

On the walk back to the car, this guy popped up in a tree right next to me.


Loggerhead Shrike
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

I drove back down to the Fisherman's Wharf area and walked the boardwalk for a little while where I had some excellent photo ops. I was greeted my many Sandwich Terns, Brown Pelicans, Snowy Egrets and Laughing Gulls. A few Royal Terns were present, and there always seemed to be a string of White Ibis flying over (which was true of nearly every location throughout the entire trip). The Bottlenose Dolphin was a nice surprise, too!


White Ibis
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014


Brown Pelican
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014


Bottlenose Dolphin
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Snowy Egret
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014











Sandwich Tern
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Willet
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014


Osprey
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Royal Tern
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

White Ibis
Fort de Soto, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Outside the park, I stopped by the pond that had the frigatebirds earlier and found a group of at least ten loafing along nearby. The all black birds are adult males, the ones with black heads contrasting with the white underneath are adult females, and the ones with white heads are first years. What amazing birds!







Magnificent Frigatebird
Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

If you back away from your screen about ten feet and squint really hard, you can almost make this guy into a tropicbird, hehe. I wish.

Royal Tern
Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

I spotted another American Oystercatcher across the causeway, and he allowed for close views as I stayed in the car. After nailing Black Oystercatcher last year, I was hoping to get some decent pics of an American while down here.



American Oystercatcher
Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

My second main location of the day was Sawgrass Lake Park, a small preserve with great habitat and a fun assortment of birds and wildlife. I couldn't get over this Tricolored Heron feeding just a few feet below me!





Tricolored Heron
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

My first alligators of the trip came here, too! There were several, different sized/aged youngsters to go along with one adult.






American Alligators
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Least Tern
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

I was happy with these Little Blue shots, and happy to capture a cool looking immature bird.



Little Blue Heron
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

There were a few kids along the trail, and at one point I heard a prolonged shrill a few hundred yards ahead of me. When I caught up with the commotion, it turned out to be this big guy hanging about ten feet over the trail. Definitely one of the larger arachnids I've seen.



Golden Silk Orb-weaver
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

I'm a big fan of softshells.

Florida Softshell Turtle
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

A few more waders...


Limpkin
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

White Ibis
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

Roseate Spoonbill
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

But the highlight of this stop for me was a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites. I had seen one each of the previous two days, but both were quick flyovers in a place where I couldn't pull over. I was itching to get some better looks and hopefully even some photos. I saw one flyover as I drove into the park, and hoped it would circle around again while I was there. It did. And then, I came around a corner to find one perched with wings and tail spread - I couldn't believe that it just sat there as if it was frozen in this position for a few minutes. Eventually it closed its wings, showing that glossy navy blue on its back. A few minutes later, the pair flew directly over my head, and I was able to capture one eating its most recent catch in flight! This bird is definitely on my top 10 all time favorites list.







Swallow-tailed Kite
Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas Co, FL
June 20, 2014

And with that, my birding for the first three days of the trip was pretty much completed, but the fun of this day had just begun. While at Merritt Island a couple days prior, Jen noticed an add in a brochure about something called bioluminescence - sounded like particles that glow in the water. It seemed intriguing, so we signed up for a trip and headed out Friday evening. We arrived at Haulover Canal (same area that we had the Manatees) a little before sunset, got our life jackets, kayak paddles, instructions from our trip leader, and set off into the bay with about 20 other people. The lightning-filled thunderheads surrounding us accentuated the starlit sky directly above as the daylight faded - already an impressive phenomenon to begin the evening.

Paddling along through the surprisingly warm water near Bair's Cove, we followed our leader back through a system of intertwined brackish inlets bordered by mangroves and an assortment of other greenery, now blended together in an indistinguishable tangle of dimly lit foliage. With rumbles of thunder off in the distance, the setting was quite serene.

We rounded a corner and the leader directed our attention to the water around us. We had read about it and been briefed on it already, but nothing could adequately prepare us for what we were about to see. As our paddles coursed through the water, little particles began lighting up with a green tinted glow. With each stroke of the paddle, another bundle of lights shot through the water. We splashed the water around and watched it light up the surface as the droplets fell from the air. We stuck our hands into the water and watched our fingers glimmer in shades of neon green, like we had dropped a bundle of glow sticks over the edge of the kayak.

It was magical; we marveled.

On our way to another area, a big fish would swim by here and there, which we could only see in the dark because the fish-shaped profiles would light up whenever they moved, leaving a stream of luminosity in their wake. The individual fish prepped us for what was next. Further into the backwaters we woke up a school of fish just below the surface and were astonished as the surprised little critters darted in every which direction, jumping out of the water all over, creating a light show we will never forget. It felt as if someone had dropped us into Narnia for the evening.

All the while, flashes of lightning sprinkled the clouds around us and the clear sky above boasted an incredible astronomical array. We were surrounded by extraordinary pulses of light in every direction and couldn't stand that it had to come to an end. I've been blessed to witness quite a few amazing displays in the natural world, and this one ranks among the most impressive I ever have and ever will observe. It was a beautiful evening to share together, and we will never forget it.