perch – and be counted! (the final chapter)

(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!

23 Comments on “perch – and be counted! (the final chapter)

  1. My local birding patch is just outside the Christmas Count circle. I have fond rmembrances of doing counts in New Mexico. Here in south Florida we do not see Red-taild Hawks. Not sure why but I cannot see what I am typing.

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    • Hmm, not sure why you can’t see your typing – is it that new “invisible ink app”? 🙂

      I can see your typing just fine but did not realize the Red-tailed Hawk was limited in range within south Florida.

      Have only made a few visits to New Mexico but LOVED every minute of them!

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  2. I can’t even imagine six hundred cranes in a group; what a wonderful reward for going back. I’ve seen a painted bunting just once, many years ago. It was so long ago I didn’t own any kind of camera, but the image of that bird hasn’t left me yet.

    The hawks are impressive. I can ID the kestrel now, but hawks aren’t so easy. There is one that perches every winter on the power lines not far from home. He’s always in the same spot, and has been for several years. If the fog lifts this week, I ‘ll pay him a visit and see if he’ll allow for a look.

    I’ve finally seen a Cardinal pair in the shrubbery at home, too. There was a pair there last year, in the same spot. Do they sometimes set up housekeeping in the same place? Last year’s pair had a baby, so I have my fingers crossed.

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    • You are about a day’s drive away from New Mexico. If you have a chance, research Bosque del Apache NWR and plan a trip between the end of November and mid-February. The sight and sound of thousands of cranes (not to mention geese) will overwhelm your senses!

      Yes, cardinals usually return to the same area each year to breed. In our area, as well as yours, they may have as many as three broods due to the longer warm season.

      Hope all is well there. We are healthy and happy! A good combination.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just took a look. That would be a two-day trip for me, especially at that time of year. It’s 900 miles, and I don’t enjoy night driving any more. Still, now I know. Maybe next season!

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  3. I can see how your hearing impediment gives Gini a problem. I have something similar whereby certain sounds go in one ear and out of the other without stopping in the middle!

    If only those damned birds didn’t have wings it would make things so easier for us birders too. Nevertheless you have some fine photos again, especially that Red-shouldered Hawk and of course the bunting that Gini found while you were distracted.

    I hope you weather is holding up Wally. It certainly is here with 48 hours of rain at the moment – very predictable at least. Take care my pal and stay away from those swamps.

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    • Gini learned early on that instead of repeating herself it was more effective to use — other measures — to ensure I heard and understood what she said. 🙂

      Yes, I suppose old John James Audubon with his trusty 12-gauge had the ultimate solution for bird i.d. A lot less expensive than all those optics, too.

      It is not the swamps that are the problem, it is what dwells within certain swamps. The trick is learning WHICH swamps to avoid.

      We have had cool and cloudy stuff lately but we’re assured warm weather and blue skies are just around the corner …..

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  4. Incredible shots! And that sounds like my kind of fun.
    Hubby and I are hoping to spend a few days in Florida next month, and visit Merritt Island Refuge and Lake Apopka.

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  5. Hi Wally 🙂 The photos are all amazing, I don’t doubt you had fun! That Red-shouldered Hawk is so regal looking! Great shot on that one!

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  6. I’m with Gini with her explanation of the Painted Bunting, Wally – what a fabulous bird (I’m talking about the bunting here!).

    With such wonderful birds, companionship, and provisioning, I can fully understand the attraction of a full day in the field. Well done!

    Oh, and a knockout header again Herr Bannermeister!

    Stay safe – – – Richard

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    • Thank you, Brian!

      We checked the area of that header pic two days ago and along that road we counted over 600 cranes! They’re gathered in groups and gorging as they prepare to migrate north in a couple of weeks. Pretty noisy with that many huge birds trumpeting!

      Liked by 1 person

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