Beach In Winter

Header Image: Sandbar With Pelicans and Shorebirds

Mid-January. Cold front scheduled in a couple of days. Where to go birding?

If you happen to be native Floridians who love to bird-watch, there is only one place to go in winter.

THE BEACH !

We made it to North Beach at Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg, Florida just after sunrise. The glow of the early morning sun gives everything a very special look. Heading across the mud which had only recently been covered by the Gulf of Mexico, dozens of small shorebirds scurried to and fro probing for a breakfast morsel. The mud soon gave way to the sugary white sand for which this beach is famous. Standing at the tide line, blue water stretched to infinity.

Perhaps there is no actual difference in the aroma of the air at the beach and the aroma of the air 60 miles inland. Psychologically, “salt air” affects my mood. Of course, a sky filled with screeching and wheeling gulls and terns, fish jumping, a diverse array of birds up and down the shoreline – perhaps the combination of all of the above has something to do with mood enhancement.

Fort DeSoto Park offers a surprising amount of diversity considering its relatively small area. Beaches, lagoons, wooded tracts, fishing piers – all attract an amazing collection of birds which can be affected by time of year and weather. Fall and spring migration here can be nothing short of stupendous. Many shorebirds nest among the sand dunes and, as we discovered, even in winter there are plenty of birds to enjoy.

A mid-morning peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with fresh strawberries was made even more enjoyable by our view of a sandbar packed with American White Pelicans, Black Skimmers, Willets and dozens of sandpipers. It was not that long ago Gini and I motored our skiff through Bunces Pass into the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fantastic fishing a few miles off-shore. Great memories.

We visited the two fishing piers and enjoyed the very active terns and Brown Pelicans crashing into schools of small fish. All that activity got the attention of a trio of Bottlenose Dolphins who slashed through the swimming buffet scattering the small fish which were picked off by the avian shoppers.

At the East Beach turnaround, we found more small sandpipers, larger Willets and a group of Red Knots. Alas, our observation was cut short with the arrival of a group of parasailers who unloaded their gear in front of us and in short order the water and sky were crowded with humans and their toys.

Colorful and fun!

Sigh. Time to move on.

I know. It’s not “our” beach. I shall try to be more tolerant. (No promises.)

A few images of our morning may help enhance your mood, too.

During winter, tides are more extreme due to the moon’s proximity. The shorebirds appreciate all that exposed real estate!

Dunlin are plentiful here during winter and, as most other shorebirds, are dressed in drab plumage. No matter what they wear, they are fun to watch.

Another shorebird we see in large numbers at this time of year is the Sanderling. Pale overall with clean undersides, they always seem to be afraid of getting their feet wet as they scurry away from incoming waves.

Osprey. The pre-eminent fisher.

An oak tree near the beach provided a great perch for this Loggerhead Shrike. Not a bird one might associate with the beach.

A Royal Tern spotted a potential snack. A quick turn by the tern and splash! Sardine for breakfast.

Although not generally common, this is a great area to find the Reddish Egret. This one spent a good amount of time preening in the early morning sun.

A group of Red-breasted Mergansers flew into a lagoon I was walking around, settled in and had a successful foraging session.

Red-breasted Merganser
Great Egret, Red-breasted Merganser
Little Blue Heron, Red-breasted Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser

With plain wings and a distinctive black patch behind the eye, a Forster’s Tern appreciated the dolphins pushing a school of small fish close to the surface.

Bunces Pass provides a navigable gateway for boats headed into the Gulf of Mexico. Know the tides and follow the channel markers or you’ll run aground!

Wind over a long period of time can shape trees as they grow. This old oak certainly had its fair share of twists. Gini imagines a pair of eyes peering at her and branches reaching out.

Several dozen Lesser Scaup floated peacefully in one lagoon, sleeping and preening. A male in the foreground was napping with one eye on us as a female in the rear was on full alert.

For us, visiting the beach in winter is every bit as good as any other season! We hope you have a special place which helps lift your spirits any time of the year.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Christmas Bird Count

Header Image: Sandhill Cranes

Hoo-H-Hoo-Hoo-Hoo. Hoo-H-Hoo-Hoo-Hoo.

Softer than one would expect for a relatively large bird. Distant. Distinct.

“Great Horned Owl!”, Gini exclaimed in the darkness. It was now about an hour-and-a-half before sunrise and this was our fourth stop in an attempt to hear nocturnal birds. A bit later, a Barred Owl couple called to each other. The highlight of our pre-dawn foray occurred at a boat ramp. “Whip-whip-whip.” Whoosh! An Eastern Whip-Poor-Will almost took my hat off as it coursed along the dirt road scooping up insects before sunup and its bedtime.

“This is fun.” (Gini has mastered the art of understatement.)

As the sky lightened, our surroundings became increasingly noisier, even by my standards. Northern Mockingbirds, Mourning Dove, Common Gallinules and Northern Cardinals were singing, calling and gabbling from all sides.

Just prior to the turn of the 20th century, it was popular in some areas of North America at Christmas and New Year’s to venture afield with dog and gun and see who among family and neighbors could amass the largest number of carcasses, primarily those of birds. Conservation was barely a concept at this time.

An ornithologist by the name of Frank Chapman got it into his head that perhaps this annual contest could be performed just as well by counting how many birds were in an area and writing the number and species on paper instead of hauling their lifeless bodies back to the kitchen table. Birds have been grateful ever since.

The first somewhat organized Christmas Bird Count was on Christmas day in 1900, conducted by 27 birders from Ontario to California. They tallied 90 species for the day.

“Modern” Christmas Bird Counts now involve thousands of birders using the latest in technology to instantly report the results of their efforts to local compilers who combine all the data for forwarding to a national center where the information is consolidated and verified. Results of this annual census effort is used by scientists, researchers and wildlife managers to help understand fluctuations in bird populations and how best to help our avian friends.

Gini and I spent about 12 hours in our assigned area on December 21st and I joined another birder on January 2nd for a count in a nearby area. We did not find any rare birds nor did we break any records on numbers of birds observed. We did have a great time and perhaps contributed in some small way to increasing the base of knowledge in an effort to improve our planet.

Good news! We saw almost 70 different species of birds!

Better news! I am not going to post that many images for you to wade through!

A few pictures follow to give you a sense of what we encountered.

Pine Warbler
Wood Duck
Eastern Bluebird
House Wren
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Carolina Chickadee
Downy Woodpecker
Palm Warbler
Hermit Thrush
Carolina Wren
White-eyed Vireo
Black-and-White Warbler
Blue-headed Vireo
American Goldfinch
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Yellow-throated Warbler
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Cattle Egret
Eastern Meadowlark
American Kestrel

We had a terrific day, saw a lot of birds and had no problem falling asleep at night. If you live in an area that conducts an annual Christmas Bird Count, consider joining in the fun next year. Contact a local Audubon bird club and they will be happy to have you. All experience levels are very welcome!

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Scouting Outing

Header Image: Purple Gallinule

‘Tis the season.

Each year around Christmas, birders across the land scatter to assigned sectors before dawn to listen for nocturnal birds and, once the sky has lightened, continue throughout the day counting species and individual birds until “warbler neck” has disabled them completely and they return to their own nests exhausted, hungry, dirty and mumbling about how horrible this year was compared to past years when flocks of infinite diversity and numbers filled the skies.

“Can’t wait until next year!”

Ah, yes. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count is upon us. No shotguns needed, John James.

In the days leading up to count day, Gini and I did a bit of scouting. We wanted to see what was active in our assigned area, find the best times and routes and develop a general plan of action for the big day. Of course, birds have no such “plan of action” and they appear and disappear from one day to the next. Thus, the Painted Buntings we discovered on Wednesday were nowhere to be seen on Saturday. On the other hand, there was no sign of a Wilson’s Snipe on Thursday, but on Saturday 16 showed up. Go figure.

Today’s collection is a pictorial potpourri of our visit to a few different areas as well as observations along the way. We had fun and it was a good warm-up exercise for count day.

Grasshopper. It’s what’s for breakfast if you are a Loggerhead Shrike.

Whether gripping a fish or a tree limb, the talons of an Osprey are quite impressive.

Someone trespassed upon her territory and this American Kestrel was very vocal about being displeased.

The blue eyes of a White Ibis are almost a match for our Florida sky reflected on the lake’s surface.

One of our most abundant winter visitors is the small but very active Palm Warbler. Identification is often easy even at a distance as they constantly pump their tails up and down.

The sub-tropical climate of the Sunshine State provides an extended breeding season for many insects. We found a handsome Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) flitting around the edge of a pasture.

Eastern Bluebirds were plentiful and even showed up for Saturday’s count day.

A Bald Eagle was feeding on something fresh which we couldn’t see, but he frequently looked skyward and screamed a warning to would-be interlopers. (Vultures and an immature Bald Eagle.)

A pale bill and grayish feathers on the head and neck identify an immature Wood Stork. By spring, the head will become bare and the bill will turn dark.

Traveling in gangs of a half-dozen or more, the little Chipping Sparrow likes to forage in the open understory of upland pine woods and oak groves. Cheerful visitors we only get to enjoy during winter.

White-eyed Vireos don’t care what the calendar says. They sang as if it were Spring at almost every stop we made!

We aren’t certain what upset this Red-shouldered Hawk, but he flew around screaming for several minutes.

One more seasonal guest, the Savannah Sparrow. Brown with plenty of stripes and a bit of yellow in front of the bill.

We had a wonderful morning scouting out our territory for the upcoming Christmas Bird Count. Stay tuned for the main event.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Blissful Bucolic Balm

Header Image: Tricolored Heron

“Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

Gini and I sneezed our way through the first two weeks of December. Intense testing, analyses and expert medical opinions told the sad tale. “Y’all got a cold.”

We are seldom sick and one of us, which we shall not name, acts like a big baby when he has the sniffles. Gini is a kitchen magician and she waved her wand over a huge pot and “poof“, soup with curative powers flowed for days. Sleep was elusive at first, but bodies have a way of shutting down when required and, eventually, we both were able to take a 72-hour nap.

Following a regimen of soup and sleep had us feeling much better but not “well”. What to do? (You already know the answer.)

Birding!

One of our local patches is exactly 2.4 miles (3.9 km) from our front door. The Bridgewater Tract of Tenoroc Fish Management Area consists of several lakes, upland pine woods, stands of hardwood (oak, hickory, elm, bay), fields of sedge and other grasses and small wetland areas. An improved dirt/crushed shell road winds its way through the area and we usually stop at each of the boat ramps which provide fair views of the lakes. Several parking spots exist at trailheads and one could easily spend a couple of days wandering the area.

It was a Florida winter day. A hint of coolness in the early morning air gave way to warmth by mid-morning. No clouds interfered with the golden rays of the sun we knew would assist in the healing process. The incessant screams of a Red-shouldered Hawk greeted us at the entrance gate, letting the natural world know that intruders were here! Among the soft pine needles below the neighborhood watch hawk we were treated to roving gangs of Palm and Pine Warblers, a Blue-headed Vireo, diminutive Downy Woodpeckers and chattering Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

The lakes were centers of activity for clucking Common Gallinules, dancing Tricolored Herons, shy Pied-billed Grebes and nervous Wood Ducks. Huge Brown Pelicans roused from their shoreline roosts and crashed into the water’s surface scooping up pouchfuls of small fish. Not having a convenient pouch, Osprey also crashed into the water, but used their substantial talons to snatch a bit larger fish for breakfast.

Winter. Florida. In addition to a wonderful diversity of birds, we found blooming flowers, dragonflies and even butterflies. No wonder we love it here.

As we headed for the exit, we sighed together with one deep breath. Sunshine. Birds. Butterflies. A warm breeze rustling pine and palm trees. None of this may have actually helped “heal” our ailments. But it didn’t hurt.

First impression said it was a pretty blue flower. Then it flew away. Then we found a half-dozen more. Small and fluttering, the Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus) can certainly brighten a day! We seldom see them with open wings.

Pecking, probing, constantly on the move. A little male Downy Woodpecker is handsome with his sleek black and white suit and red nape.

In our area, we see House Finches at our feeder infrequently and even less often in the “wild”. Today we were surprised by three females and one male feeding near a boat ramp. Male House Finches’ head color can vary from nearly red to orange to yellow. The more carotenoids in their diet, the more red in their plumage.

A curious female Northern Cardinal wasn’t sure if were a threat or not. We didn’t move for awhile and she continued feeding.

Masses of bright yellow flowers decorating the banks of lakes and scattered across wetlands at this time of year make us thankful for the Bur-marigold (Bidens laevis). Walking through these plants makes us less thankful as the “beggar-ticks” can be a pain to scrape off pants and socks.

We were entertained for a bit by a pair of Tricolored Herons. They performed an intricate ballet of sorts as they danced across the water, spread their wings, pirouetted and stabbed under lily pads for a snack.

Movement nearby revealed a Black-and-White Warbler scurrying down a tree trunk imitating a Nuthatch. I was only able to snap one quick image before the small beauty disappeared.

The constant calling from a nearby branch alerted us that a Blue-headed Vireo wanted her picture taken, please. Happy to oblige.

Venturing outdoors for the first time in a couple of weeks did not heal us. It DID help us feel better. Our spirits were lighter and there is no medicine which can accomplish that.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit.

THANK YOU ALL FOR VISITING WITH US AND HELPING US CELEBRATE THE NATURAL WORLD. WE APPRECIATE IT.

M E R R Y C H R I S T M A S !!

Red-shouldered Hawk

Header Image: Red-shouldered Hawk

We were quite fortunate yesterday to have the opportunity to observe an immature Red-shouldered Hawk as it scouted for, located and consumed a meal. The bird constantly scanned the ground beneath its perch and once it located its potential prey it acted swiftly.

It “fell” from the branch and instantly spread its impressive wings and tail for maximum braking power. As it landed, it pivoted with outstretched talons to seize its meal. It took a couple of minutes (possibly to be sure the prey was immobilized) but the young hawk retrieved a huge grub and consumed in it a few gulps.

Satisfied, the raptor prepared to take off, sprang into the air and headed to the nearby woods.

We don’t often have a chance to enjoy this entire sequence.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!