(Header Image: Sandhill Cranes)

One of the interesting things about the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count is that observers are assigned to a specific geographic area within which to conduct a census. In our area, we have urban, suburban and rural spots which include lakes, parks, wetlands, forests and pasture land to explore. This diversity of habitat provides great potential for seeing a good mix of species as well as large numbers of individual birds.

We were familiar with most of the areas which we were assigned to cover and had a chance to scout around a few days before the actual count days. “Count Day”. That is the day when you are reminded that birds have wings and nature has no calendar. The field that was filled with migratory Sandhill Cranes yesterday is empty today. Sigh.

Fortunately, we managed to find plenty of birds of sufficient diversity to be very pleased with ourselves. Besides, birding from before sunrise to after sunset is a great way to spend any day!

Having Gini as my birding partner is a plus in so many ways. For starters, she can hear the birds. I have a hearing loss which seems to filter out many bird sounds. Secondly, she has a wonderful ability to spot something “different” which has often resulted in discovery of a new or unusual bird. She brings good things to snack on. The only downside is she is so good-looking that I am constantly distracted from the primary mission. I’ll try to do better.

We saw many beautiful birds during this year’s census. One of the most colorful has to be the Painted Bunting. Gini saw something “different” (see what I mean?) near a boat ramp but it disappeared. She said it had a thickish beak and seemed to be green. Just then, a flash of bright color landed a few yards in front of us. A male Painted Bunting! She had likely seen the female. We saw an additional male and this was a first occurrence for the species in that particular area. A highlight for us!

Here are a few more images to give you an idea of the variety we found. Did I mention we had fun?

Gini doesn’t think the Painted Bunting was “painted”, but rather he just rolled around in the artist’s palette so he could include every color. She may be right.

A male Common Yellowthroat with his black mask is one of those small birds with a huge attitude. Quick to challenge any potential intruder, he usually jumps from his hiding place to see who is trespassing in his territory.

Large size is sometimes enough to identify the Red-tailed Hawk. The only raptor in our area which is bigger is the Bald Eagle. The colorful tail certainly helps determine which hawk you’re seeing when it’s visible. Be aware that the tail of young Red-tailed Hawks is brown for their first year.

Small yellow balls of feathers flitting among the branches normally indicates a warbler. But which one? In this case, a distinctive face pattern (gray semi-circle under the eye), a dark eye line, gray streaks along the flanks and extensive yellow underneath tells us we’re looking at a female Prairie Warbler. The male has the same patterns but has darker black where the female is gray.

“Vireo!” Gini’s hearing had us scanning the trees and, sure enough, a vireo. A Blue-headed Vireo with a thick bill, blue-gray head, white “spectacles”, clean white breast and belly with yellow flanks. Another bird I would likely have missed if she had not been with me.

Our smallest woodpecker is the Downy Woodpecker. With only black and white showing on its head and no red, this is a female.

By far the most common hawk in Florida is the Red-shouldered Hawk. There can be quite a bit of difference in plumage color throughout the state with birds in the southern portion of the peninsula appearing lighter.

The smallest falcon in North America is the American Kestrel. They often perch on outbuildings such as this one next to a pasture where insects are abundant. The female, seen here, is not as colorful and a bit larger than the male.

Clear, melodic tones coming from the middle of a cow pasture can be traced to an Eastern Meadowlark. In addition to a pleasing song, the large bright yellow bird is very handsome. Despite its name, the meadowlark is not in the lark family but is actually a blackbird!

Touring a pasture on an all-terrain-vehicle (thank you, Steve and Debby!), a few low places where water and mud were present produced a trio of Least Sandpipers. We weren’t expecting shorebirds among the cattle!

In the pasture mentioned above, we continually flushed sparrows but couldn’t get a good look at them as they would fly a short distance, land in a clump of grass and then run several yards. Finally managed to get one to hold still for a millisecond. Lots of crisp breast streaks, distinct face pattern and a bit of yellow in front of the eye (hard to see here) – Savannah Sparrow.

The Butcher Bird is watching! A Loggerhead Shrike has the unique habit of catching an insect and impaling it on a thorn, branch or barbed wire to make it easier to eat.

One of the most numerous warbler species to spend all winter here is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Many birders call it a “butter-butt”. Whatever you call them, they are beautiful.

My mother was always happy to discover a “redbird” was nesting in the yard. The male Northern Cardinal is, truly, a great-looking “redbird”.

Florida normally has a great collection of woodpecker species which remain here all year. One species we don’t have at least visits each winter. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has an overall dark appearance and this female has a light-colored throat. Males have red throats.

This year’s Christmas Bird Count is finished. We saw a lot of birds, covered a lot of territory, spent a couple of long days in the field and had a blast! If you are in an area which participates in the annual census, consider volunteering through the local Audubon chapter. You’ll be glad you did.

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

perch – And be counted!

(First of a two-part photographic extravaganza!)

 (Header Image: A Central Florida lake at sunset.)

We’re tired.

For the last couple of weeks, Gini and I have been participating in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts held around our local area. Several days of scouting, actual count days (+12 hour days in the field), processing data and photographs – whew!

Not content with giving 100% during this time, Gini also conducted Christmas ornament making sessions with family members, baked over 22 dozen cookies, made several loaves of banana and mango bread, prepared an incredible holiday feast of standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, greens, rice and black-eyed peas (Hoppin’ John for you American southerners) and delivered gifts to family and friends. (Now I’m even more exhausted just describing my over-achieving mate!)

The annual bird census has its roots at the turn of the 20th century in the recently formed Audubon Society. Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed the idea on Christmas day in 1900 and 27 birders around North America counted birds instead of shooting them, as had been a tradition before then.

Now, between December 14 and January 5 each year, thousands of birders of all degree of experience sign up with local Audubon chapters to help add data for scientists to use in gaining a better understanding of birds. A pretty good idea for which Mr. Chapman would rightly be very proud!

We counted many birds and found a couple of “firsts” to be observed within our area of responsibility (Brown-headed Nuthatch —> thanks to Gini’s good ears – and Crested Caracara). On our first day we found 72 different species and the second trip (in a different area) netted 55 species. We look forward to being tired again about this time next year!

Here are a few of the cooperative birds we spotted during this year’s effort. Once again, we appreciate how blessed we are to live where observing so many diverse birds within a relatively small area is a common occurrence. I hope we never take it for granted!

(For your viewing convenience, we’ll split the image collection into two parts. I mean, who wants to sit and look through almost three dozen pictures of pretty birds? Okay, besides you. And you. The rest of the group is grateful.)

Pretty in pink and with a distinctive bill, a Roseate Spoonbill glides toward a lake shore for a dinner buffet.

When the light is right, the plumage of the Glossy Ibis is downright iridescent.

It looks a bit like a heron or an ibis. It is more closely related to rails and cranes. But the Limpkin is the only member of its taxonomic family, Aramidae. It really is one-of-a-kind!

A Belted Kingfisher patiently watches for breakfast. We normally only see these sleek fishermen (“fisherbirds”?) during migration and many remain here throughout the winter.

Our first morning outing was cold! A Great Blue Heron has his feathers fluffed to the maximum trying to catch the warming rays of the rising sun.

Black-and-white Warblers behave like nuthatches as they scurry down a tree trunk head first. This first one shows us his brunch worm while number two is a bit camera shy.

Although its range is expanding slightly, the Snail Kite remains on Florida’s and the federal endangered species list. The handsome gray male cruised in front of me just at sunset, grabbed an apple snail from a reed and took it to a wall and enjoyed his dinner.

Looking like some huge cargo airplane, the Brown Pelican seems to cruise effortlessly above the lake’s surface as he searches for a school of fish with which to fill his pouch.

During migration, we see two versions of the Palm Warbler. The Western, which is rather drab gray/brown and the Eastern, which displays more yellow in its plumage. The two versions mix together, sometimes in large flocks, characteristically pumping their tails as they feed.

The wind-blown look. An Eastern Phoebe is alert for any movement which could be its next buggy meal.

Another bird we only see in Florida during migration is the American Robin. This largest member of North American thrushes can be encountered in huge  flocks during their flight south. We found a couple dozen enjoying the fruit of Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), an invasive shrub which is quite detrimental to other flora and fauna.

Pine Warblers, similar to the Palm Warbler above, can vary from quite drab to extremely bright. Their bills seem almost too big for a warbler. When they feed, they are somewhat deliberate as they move among the tree tops or walk along the ground. Most other warblers appear “jumpy” as they are always moving at top speed.

The noon-day sun glistened off the beak of a Bald Eagle brooding eggs while its mate stood watch on an adjacent utility pole. That is one serious-looking expectant parent!

Join us next time for more Christmas Bird Count excitement and fun! We’ll bring the cookies.

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

Florida’s Fall Forest

 “Come to the woods, for here is rest.” John Muir

Upstate New York is unbelievably beautiful. In autumn, that beauty is enhanced by trees adorned with leaves of hues we never even knew existed. Walking along a path in November, crisp cold air turning your nose red, dry leaves crunching under foot, a Ring-necked Pheasant in a field springing up suddenly and snow beginning to fall gently to create a soft blanket which would cover those crunchy leaves during the night.

Gini and I are native Floridians. Living in Syracuse, New York was an adventure we shall never forget.

Fast forward – a lot of years. Back in our home Sunshine State there has always been a joke that Florida only has two seasons:  brown and green. We are in the brown one.

However – there are a few spots in the state which, while not on the scale of a New York fall, sport a rather colorful display during late November and early December. Our local state park at Colt Creek happens to be one of those locales. Thanks to a healthy population of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and a combination of rainfall amount and temperature, we occasionally find red and gold among our normally green patch of swamp and woods.

December in Florida also means we have opportunities to observe birds visiting from as far away as, well, upstate New York. The migratory travelers appreciate all the insect life the swampy woods offer. We appreciate them consuming as many as they can.

A couple of weeks ago, Gini packed up some fresh Florida citrus and granola bars and we enjoyed a splendid day chasing small birds in big trees. We saw our first Chipping Sparrows of the season but, alas, they were quick to escape and I couldn’t find them again for a  photo. In addition to a good number of birds, we saw some of our “regular” residents: alligators, deer, squirrels, turtles and even caterpillars, butterflies and a few dragonflies.

The woods smell different at this time of year. I suppose it has to do with decaying leaves recently released from limbs now becoming compost which will support new life in the spring. Drier weather means lower water levels in the creeks and more of the banks exposed for animals and birds to explore the soft mud for a meal.

In addition to fall warblers, we were fortunate to spot a local pair of Red-shouldered Hawks, an American Kestrel, young White Ibises, lovely Turkey Vultures trying to stay warm and a couple of Killdeer at the ranger station. The morning passed all too quickly.

We lingered a bit to enjoy our colorful autumn display across the lake. Admittedly, not as impressive as our New York memory, but we like it just fine.

The Common Yellowthroat has what we refer to as “small bird syndrome”. Similar to his cousins the wren and gnatcatcher, they are quick to challenge any would-be intruder and aggressively jump to a conspicuous perch to defend their territory.

Speaking of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. This one was too busy keeping an eye on a breakfast bug to challenge my presence.

White-tailed Deer are common throughout the park early in the morning and have become somewhat accustomed to human presence. This doe still eyed me suspiciously and eventually melted into the trees as I wandered around looking for birds.

An Eastern Bluebird seems to defy gravity as it hangs on to a piece of pine tree bark.

Pine Warblers can be quite bright yellow or quite drab gray, and many shades in between. These big-billed warblers readily come to feeders for seed to supplement their insect diet.

At the park entrance, two Killdeer probed the grass around the pavement for insects. The bird supposedly gets its name from its call. The naturalist, Mark Catesby (early 1700’s) called it the “chattering plover”.

Small gray/brown bird, subtle breast streaks, yellowish flanks – a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The species has been split into two distinct varieties: Myrtle with a whitish throat and Audubon’s with a yellow throat.

It is an ornithological mystery as to how the bird received its common name.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

As we passed by a creek, a slight movement caught our attention, otherwise we would have walked by this pair of beautiful Red-shouldered Hawks.

There’s nothing like an old metal roof to warm one up on a chilly morning. A pair of Turkey Vultures soak up the heat as they wait for thermals to form so they can begin their day of soaring. I thought the one perched on the roof’s peak would make a good weather vane. Gini said – well – suffice it to say she was not quite as enthusiastic as I was.

North America’s smallest falcon is the American Kestrel. This one was typically wary and flew to the next county as soon as I snapped a distant picture. The male is unmistakable in his colorful plumage.

A pair of White Ibises prepare to land in a small wetland. Immature birds are brown with white splotches until their second year, when they molt into the pure white of an adult.

Eastern Phoebe’s are fairly numerous throughout the winter and we miss them when they migrate north again. This one enjoys a large grasshopper brunch. Almost too large?

Our memories of distant autumn foliage are cherished. We are blessed to have small bits of color at this time of year which add to our enjoyment of Florida’s forests.

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

LATE BREAKING NEWS FLASH !!

When last we met, spiders were busy guarding egg sacs throughout the land. We found one which Mother Green Lynx Spider had torn open to help all her new babies crawl out into the wide world. All those little reddish-brown dots have legs.

Green Lynx (Peucetia viridans) – Young Recently Hatched

Sparrows And Spiders

(Header Image: Swamp Sparrow)

Is our “patch” TOO convenient? I mean, within ten minutes we can be in the middle of some pretty decent birding territory. So it is no wonder we tend to visit it more often than other, more distant locations. As Gini said on this morning, we always see SOMETHING special out here!

Today was no different.

Central Florida has only four species of sparrow which breed within the state: Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis); a Florida sub-species of Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus); House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) – an introduced old world species; and, a bird many forget is actually a sparrow, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). There are three sub-species of Eastern Towhee in Florida, each having a different color iris.

As late fall arrives, so do additional species of sparrows. Our local patch, Tenoroc Fish Management Area, is blessed with abundant habitat attractive to hungry visitors from the north. We found three migratory species this morning: Swamp Sparrow, with its distinctive rusty wing patch; Savannah Sparrow, crisp streaks and yellow lores; and Vesper Sparrow, white eye ring and longish tail bordered in white (obvious in flight).

Florida’s weather is not just attractive for tourists wanting to escape frigid temperatures and snow shovels. Insects are able to thrive here most of the year. Which is why we are blessed with such a variety of avian migrants, many of which overwinter if the air doesn’t get too cold.

Gini spotted “something” in the field. It appeared the tops of a couple of dried woody-stemmed weeds had been encased in silk and drawn together. Closer examination revealed a brown-colored “pouch” in the center of the mass. Even closer examination revealed a green guardian close to the “pouch”.

The Green Lynx spider was ready to repel any would-be attackers as she protected her egg sac. That sac could contain as many as 600 eggs, with about 200 being average. When the time is right, she will rip the top from the sac and hundreds of new spiderlings will emerge. They will remain in the enclosed “webbing” for two to four weeks and then they’re on their own.

Green Lynx spiders (Peucetia viridans) are common throughout the southern United States from coast to coast, Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. During this particular morning, we spotted at least a dozen of these enclosed egg sacs, each with Mama Spider ready to eat us. (Well, that’s a bit dramatic.)

Our trip today was somewhat shorter than normal and we found not only sparrows and spiders, but also a falcon, a preening ground dove, the bluebird of happiness, a marsh marauder, a hanging dragon and a more sinister scaly beast at the creek!

A beautiful day, a gorgeous companion and the infinite diversity of Nature displayed in all its glory!

Life. Is. Good.

A pair of American Kestrels circled over an open grassy field for a moment and the female came close enough for a picture. These are North America’s smallest falcons.

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True to its name, the Common Ground Dove spends a lot of time, well – on the ground. Once in awhile, though, a tree branch is a great place to rest and clean one’s feathers. Preening offers us a good chance to view the rich reddish-brown underside of this little dove’s wings.

Brown crown, gray neck and breast, whitish throat, yellow behind the bill and rusty wings help identify a Swamp Sparrow. Habitat helps, too. They are typically found low in the brush near water.

At the south end of a large open field, we can usually find a few Eastern Bluebirds. Today was no exception and one even perched close enough even I could get its picture. Now, if I can just train them to perch on tree limbs instead of wires.

One of our regular winter migrants used to be called a Marsh Hawk, due to its preferred hunting area. Bird-naming-bureaucrats with omnipotent powers decided one day that this beautiful raptor should henceforth be called a Northern Harrier. Splendid to watch, no matter what she’s called.

Once Gini found the first Green Lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) nursery, they seemed to be everywhere. Below are images of egg sacs protected by that fiercest of sentinels – MOTHER!

The handsome Savannah Sparrow prefers drier habitat than his Swamp cousin. Brown above, light below, crisp streaks and usually a yellow patch in front of the eye.

At first glance, the Vesper Sparrow appears similar to the Savannah. A white eye ring helps identify it along with white outer tail feathers which are visible in flight. Also, the Vesper lacks the yellow around the eye which the Savannah sports.

Odonata activity has slowed down as a series of cold fronts recently moved through the state. We were a bit surprised to encounter a Blue-faced Darner (Coryphaeschna adnexa) just hanging around.

“That creek looks so inviting”, Gini sighed. “Wouldn’t it be great to kick off our shoes and wade in that clear water?” I seldom disagree with my bride – for health reasons. This time, however, I suggested she glance to the left just a bit. “Oh. Never mind.”

We had a fantastic morning ferreting out sparrows and marveling at the Green Lynx spider’s life cycle playing out right before our eyes. Breakfast was but a memory and now it was time for a treat to take home. Cuban sandwiches and Spanish bean soup. Yum!

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

Around The Lakes

(Header Image: Lake Kissimmee pre-dawn, light fog.)

“It’s something different.”

A phrase guaranteed to increase a birder’s pulse rate.

“Yellow face, dark eye line, greenish on the back, white wing-bars, white underneath, dark throat – what in the world?”

Gone.

A couple of pictures. Sigh. Drive on.

“There it is! There are two of them!”, Gini yelled and braced for impact as I slammed on the brakes. The two birds were in plain view on an oak tree branch over the road. As I swung the camera up – gone again.

Reviewing the field guide showed our little friends were NEW BIRDS for us! Black-throated Green Warblers!

We had stopped after spotting quite a bit of activity on the sides of the dirt road ahead and movement in the scrub oak trees on either side of us. On the road, a half-dozen Palm Warblers scooted around, tails a-wagging, snapping up bugs from the dirt and grass. In the trees, we saw more Palm Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, a Yellow-throated Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo and our new warbler. A group such as this is fairly common during migration. Safety in numbers.

It was mid-morning and the day had been another spectacular adventure in central Florida! Just before sunrise, we stopped to admire huge Lake Kissimmee (35,000 acres) from the State Road 60 bridge. A few miles farther east, we turned onto the rut-filled entrance road to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.

Up until around the mid-19th century, it is estimated there were more than one million acres of grass prairie in Florida. Over 500 years ago, Spanish explorers left cattle in the state which had been brought from Spain to provide food. These cattle were small, lanky and had wide horns. Not the best beef cattle, but they could survive in Florida’s harsh environment. Improvements to the stock were made after the Civil War and around the turn of the 20th century Florida ranked second only to Texas in United States beef production. Although the state’s vast prairies were being reduced due to population increases and development, better management, newer grass species and more effective pest control for cattle all combined to create a thriving cattle industry which continues today.

The vast (64,000+ acres) Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area on the east side of Lake Kissimmee offers an incredible opportunity to explore remnants of Florida’s dry grass prairie as well as the wet prairies near each of the three lakes (Kissimmee, Marian and Jackson). Also in the area are groves of scrub oak, upland pine woods and wet cypress domes. Each of these different habitats host an amazing diversity of life. Not to mention the three lakes, which not only offer fabulous fishing but provide nesting, hunting and wintering territory for an incredible number of birds.

It’s difficult to top a new life bird, but the entire day was filled with discovery. Migrating birds, beautiful resident birds, white-tailed deer, raccoons, fox squirrels, gorgeous flowers, aroma of fresh pine trees, bright blue water of the lakes – exciting and relaxing all at the same time!

A small sample of what we saw today.

Our new life bird! He promised to pose for a better photograph – next time. Black-throated Green Warbler.

A female Common Yellowthroat doesn’t sport the black mask of her male counterpart, but both prefer to remain low in the brush where they hope to escape a predator’s attention.

Another female, an Indigo Bunting, sports only a hint of color at the shoulder and in the tail.

Wet areas abound around the lakes and in low places which catch runoff from rains falling on the prairie. Many plants take advantage of the dampness and flourish in these spots. One of the more spectacular examples is the Swamp Rosemallow  (Hibiscus grandiflorus) which can grow to nearly ten feet (3+ meters) tall.  A butterfly visitor, the Twin-spot Skipper (Oligoria maculata), appreciates the nectar and has agreed to transport a bit of pollen to a nearby plant.

Normally skulking on a low limb just above water, this Green Heron takes advantage of a higher altitude branch to scout for breakfast.

A healthy apple snail population attracts a female Snail Kite. She has been banded in an effort to keep tabs on her travels. The Snail Kite is endemic to Florida within the United States and is on both Federal and state endangered lists. In 1972, it was estimated there were less than 70 individuals in Florida. Today there may be more than 1,000 but it’s future is of extreme concern.

Part of the Three Lakes WMA consists of open pine forest. Dead or dying trees are a preferred nesting spot for the Red-headed Woodpecker. From 1966 to 2014, this beautiful woodpecker declined in population nearly 70% in North America. Causes of the decline include landowners clearing away dead trees and the overall decline of nut crops.

There be dragons in the prairie! Who knew? We found several Odonata throughout the day.

Band-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata) – Female
Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) – Male

Guardians of the lakes. A Great Blue Heron and large Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis) share a lily pad patch near the shore of Lake Kissimmee.

Another female Snail Kite, this one without ankle jewelry, perches atop a channel marker which has the remnants of an Osprey nest.

Remember the fabulous fishing I mentioned earlier? A Little Blue Heron demonstrates how easy it is. Simply dip your long beak into the wet grass and, voilà!

Speaking of lunch. We enjoyed cold chicken and fruit on a sun-filled day as we gazed out over blue water and watched a sky filled with birds putting on a show – just for us.

We had a terrific morning of exploring this vast area and were amply rewarded with observations of nature at every turn. A return trip is already planned.

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

Additional Information

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area