“Would it be okay if I go to the park in the morning?”
“You know you don’t have to ask. Of course it would be okay.”
“It’s just that I have this headache.”
“You? Have a headache? That’s unusual!”
“I think it’s a migration headache.”
“Oh. C’mon, let’s go to bed.”
She loves my witty repartee.
Birders know the symptoms of the seasons, though. Each spring and autumn scores of wanna-be J.J. Audubons experience aching shoulders from toting heavy optical equipment, sore eyes from squinting into the depths of branches and brush in the dim light of pre-dawn and, worst of all, the dreaded and debilitating “warbler neck” from gazing into the tippy tops of trees hoping to spot a wing bar 200 feet above the ground. Yes, “migration headache” season is upon us.
Eight minutes after walking out the front door I was pulling into a parking spot at Lake Parker Park. It’s a nicely maintained facility within the city limits of our home town of Lakeland, Florida, USA. It offers walking trails, picnic pavilions, two boat ramps, tennis and basketball courts and a soccer complex. Located on the northwest shore of Lake Parker, a 2300 acre (930 ha.) freshwater lake, the park is a great place for birding. The combination of the lake, shoreline, canal, wetlands, open areas and a fairly diverse collection of trees make the area very inviting for a wide assortment of birds.
During fall and spring migration, although not a “hot spot”, the park can produce a consistently decent list of traveling species. Occasional surprises are also possible. Last year, I found an unexpected Orchard Oriole atop a cypress tree by the boat ramp. Many migrants spend the entire winter within the park as it offers plenty of food and secure shelter, especially thanks to recent efforts to control the feral cat population.
Join me for a morning walk. You check the upper branches and I’ll scour the understory. (My neck is older.)
We’ll begin at the mulberry tree by the big pavilion near the lake, then walk along the shore. Keep an eye out for Caspian Terns and Bald Eagles over the lake. As we cross the footbridge, check in the willows for a Black-crowned Night heron. Once we turn to follow the canal, any of the big trees could hold warblers.
I wonder if the person who named the Yellow Warbler was a master of understatement? One of the most common warblers in North America, we are privileged to see them during migration.
The Northern Parula breeds in our area and numbers increase as migrants pass through on their way to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
Slim and super-active, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers also breed in Florida. Many will remain throughout the winter as others will continue to Central America and the Caribbean to help with insect control.
Along the lake shore we find an upset Green Heron. The crest on his head is raised as a Tricolored Heron flew too close to the heron’s breakfast buffet.
Nearby, a Snowy Egret’s concentration on a frog is unbroken by the heron kerfuffle.
A branch overlooking the lake is a perfect spot to enjoy the first rays of the rising sun for this Limpkin. Too young to notice anything except their next meal, a pair of immature Limpkins almost step on my feet as they scout the area for succulent snails.
Gini says the Common Gallinule chicks look like a ball of black wool which has been exposed to static electricity. Babies. Mama thinks she’s just adorable.
Calling from within a willow thicket, a White-eyed Vireo keeps those white eyes on yours truly. I was able to retreat after one shot and he relaxed and sang a for awhile.
Sometime after their first spring, immature Little Blue Herons will molt from white into the more familiar slate blue of an adult.
While you’re craning your necks upward scanning hopefully for a glimpse of a wayward warbler, glance down once in awhile to see if a cute young alligator is waiting patiently to cross the path. I know, he’s hard to see with that green camouflage on his head.
The Tricolored Heron quit pestering the Snowy Egret and managed to find his own snack. A small minnow for such a large bird.
She may be young, but this immature Red-bellied Woodpecker has already learned the best bugs like to hide on the underside of tree limbs.
Common and numerous does not mean you can’t be beautiful, too. Exhibit “A”, the Mourning Dove.
Larger, and likewise common and numerous, Exhibit “B”, the White-winged Dove is just as attractive as its cousin.
Sporting a wingspan of nearly 30 inches (75 cm), the Pileated Woodpecker is impressive as it hammers away at tree limbs in its search for insects. This female chiseled out large chunks of wood and used her sticky tongue to lap up ants. I know they were ants because she continued to chop at the limb until it fell and I had a chance to examine it.
A bit of a surprise was finding a half-dozen Eastern Bluebirds in the park. They generally prefer a bit more open habitat.
Several Black-and-White Warblers were active in the park. And I do mean active! They hunt for bugs everywhere and will hop down the trunk of a tree head first, like a nuthatch.
After watching the big Pileated Woodpecker, a female Downy Woodpecker seems dainty by comparison.
Bright yellow with dark stripes on the flank and a unique facial pattern help identify a Prairie Warbler. They breed here so it’s hard to know if this one is a migrant or a resident.
More bright yellow! This time it’s a Yellow-throated Warbler, doing some acrobatics to search for brunch.
Time to head back to the car. Wait! Did you see that? A flycatcher swooped from its perch to grab a crane fly. Grayish-brown above, dusky light gray below, two light wing bars, faint eye ring, orangish lower mandible. An Eastern Wood-Pewee! A definite migrant.
My “migration headache” has disappeared. Its symptoms, however, will linger a few more weeks. Thank you for coming along. Gini says cinnamon buns and fresh coffee are ready, if you’re interested. Only eight minutes away.
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
(Header image: Common Ground Dove.)
The conversation usually goes something like: “Is there somewhere you would like to go tomorrow?” Gini responds, “Anywhere is fine with me.”
“Anywhere” will typically be within our home county as we like to keep tabs on what’s happening with “our” resident birds. Since we live in west-central Florida, there are many great birding destinations within a couple hours’ drive and we often explore those venues. One day, I’ll surprise her and take her shopping. She would never forgive me.
For today, “anywhere” will be what has become another local “patch”. Birders tend to return to places which don’t require extensive travel yet offer good observation opportunities. As we become familiar with those areas, we get to know the bird populations and it becomes easier to spot “newcomers”. Since we know the terrain well, not becoming lost and knowing where to go helps with efficiency. For birders, patches are good things.
Formerly mined extensively for phosphate, Tenoroc Fish Management Area has over 7500 acres (3035 hectares) to explore. Much of that is water. Old mining pits have been reclaimed and transformed into excellent fishing lakes. The area is only open Friday through Monday and anglers come from long distances to be first in line to get to their favorite lake. Management only allows a limited number of fishermen on each lake in order to avoid overfishing. (It doesn’t hurt that this vast playground and new “patch” is only ten minutes from the front door.)
With all of that space and water, birding can be quite good. We have found some spots more productive than others and it has been easy to fall into a routine. By the time we check the “good” spots, it’s time to head to the house.
Today, we decided to be bold and explore a couple of trails we had heretofore not trod.
Here’s the thing. Somewhere along the 50+ year journey of becoming avid birders, we made the rather startling discovery that we may be “amateur naturalists”. Especially in the past couple of years, we become easily distracted from birding by a butterfly, an interesting plant, dragons and damsels and even – gulp – fungi!
So, even though today’s trip did not result in a large number of birds seen, we found two new trails which hold great potential for migrating birds and which provided some terrific sightings of insects and flowers which made for a very successful day.
As usual, my genius Gini’s “anywhere” turned out to be a winner. Just like her.
Yup. We made images.
The first path had a lake on one side and a steep ravine and creek on the other. Tall hardwood trees in the ravine and willows along the lake screamed “birdy”! Now, if we can just convince the birds how nice it is. As with all things in life, timing is everything. (Apologies for the image quality. Cell phone camera.)
The Ornate Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix) has two endearing qualities: it is active in the daytime, making it easier to see; and it’s sorta pretty.
One of Florida’s more common butterflies, the White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae), also happens to be fairly attractive.
During the morning, we counted six Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. These sleek hunters rarely pause as they inspect every twig and leaf for insect snacks.
As dragonflies go, the Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) is medium-sized and the male is hard to miss with his reddish-orange body. The female pictured here has a warm brownish-orange abdomen and gold-tinted wings.
Small and gorgeous. A Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius) is a woodland butterfly with “eyes” on its wings to help fool would-be predators.
During annual molting, many birds, such as the Eastern Meadowlark remain silent as they have only limited ability to fly. Once new feathers are in place, a convenient perch in a field becomes a stage from which the unmistakable clear notes of this songster are broadcast for those fortunate enough to be in range.
Wandering Gliders (Pantala flavescens) are true to their name and can normally be seen zipping back and forth guarding territories and chasing rivals and potential enemies. Knowing they have to land SOMETIME and actually finding them when they do are two different things. We found one! Woo-hoo!
This path was bordered on the north by a lake and on the south by a really nice wetland area, filled with cypress trees, willows and a few oaks and hickory trees. Again with that timing thing. We’ll keep tabs on this spot as fall migration gets busy. (Again, cell phone quality.)
Small, brownish-gray and a few tiny white spots help identify a Clouded Skipper (Lerema Accius). Even simplicity in nature is beautiful.
No subtlety here! A colorful Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) shows off its black and contrasting wash of blue, which identifies it as a female. The male displays a wash which is more greenish.
If it hadn’t moved just a bit, I would have walked right by this Royal River Cruiser (Macromia taeniolata). Although they are large for a dragonfly, they blend in surprisingly well with their perches.
And, if I had not seen the dragon above, I would have missed the Blue-faced Darner (Coryphaeschna adnexa) which was hanging about six feet beyond it. Thus proving my motto: “Better lucky than good!”
Heading home, we spotted a movement in a tall pine tree and parked to take a closer look. A magnificent Red-tailed Hawk! She appeared to have fresh prey which may have been a rabbit. Her head snapped around and I took a couple of quick shots and left her alone to enjoy lunch.
We are not yet familiar with all of our new “patch”. Does that make it a “patch-work in progress”? The portions we have explored so far makes anticipating future trips an exciting prospect!
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Florida. The Sunshine State. Our climate is sub-tropical with an average annual rainfall of around 55 inches (140 cm). Mild winters range from the low 50’s F (10 C) in north Florida to the mid 60’s F (18 C) in the south. Throughout the state, average summer temperatures in the hottest month of July are in the low to mid 80’s F (29 C). High humidity levels are due to the fact that no point in Florida is more than 60 miles (96.5 km) from salt water.
The first day of autumn is scheduled for September 22. Hope it isn’t late.
“Fall Migration”. Once again, we have obtained evidence that many birds cannot read. The trip described in this post actually took place on August 18, clearly not yet “Fall”. Yet, we observed two American Redstarts, a migratory species. Also, a group of six Swallow-tailed Kites were preparing for or were actually engaged in migration as this species is typically only seen as individuals or pairs.
We are catching up a bit (“rewinding”) on previously unreported trips. This particular day (August 18) found us lounging around the house uncharacteristically late. Our objective was to scout nearby Colt Creek State Park for early fall migrants but the wise managers of the state’s natural resources have decreed no wildlife within The Sunshine State’s park system shall be officially observed by humans until the bureaucratically decent hour of 08:00.
Fine. A leisurely breakfast at the house, a relaxed ride out of town and arrival just as the state-sanctioned automatic gate at the park’s entrance swung open to welcome us to the official wild Florida. No pesky gorgeous sunrise to distract us from the state’s officially approved bits of nature.
I am not ungrateful. Just the opposite. Florida does a magnificent job managing its vast natural resources and we are very thankful to have so many opportunities to enjoy our great outdoors.
It’s just that I have so little to complain about that I need to practice on small things in case big things happen which require real complaining.
We had a wonderful day! Beautiful weather prevailed and we found lovely flowers in bloom, a plethora of pollinators attracted to said flowers, birds galore but mostly camera shy and even the aforementioned “fall migrants”. In summer.
As a bonus, we encountered two nearly simultaneous life-and-death dramas!
All before lunch time.
Swallow-tailed Kites breed in Florida and begin arriving from their South American wintering grounds about the second week of February each year. Groups begin forming for the return migration south in August and most of the birds are gone by the third week of the month. We found a half-dozen at the park’s entrance just waking, stretching, preening and waiting for the coffee to brew.
A female Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) may not have the flashy hot pink coloration of the male, but her striped thorax and golden abdomen are distinctly beautiful.
Most species of Thread-waisted Wasp (Ammophila procera) won’t sting unless severely provoked. Their relatively large size and brightly colored abdomen are usually sufficient to ward off curiosity seekers, such as yours truly.
A small member of the grass skipper family, the Whirlabout (Polites vibex) has a flight pattern which leaves little doubt how it was named.
Fast flyers, Tropical Checkered-Skippers (Pyrgus oileus) can be a blue-gray blur zipping above the grass. Although small, the black-and-white pattern of these little butterflies is beautiful.
A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) hovered next to the flower of a Spanish Needle, extracting nectar. It flew to another blossom. ZAP! Blending in with the plant’s green foliage, a stealthy Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) captured his prize.
Scarcely six feet from the scene of the previous ambush, the strong web of a Black and Yellow Argiope (Argiope aurantia) spider proved too strong for a dragonfly.
Two spiders, two different hunting techniques, both successful.
One day, I’ll catch the Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe) with its wings open so we can admire the bright orange and black on its upper wings. For now, the unique pattern of the under wing is just fine.
We watched a family of two adult and two immature Northern Cardinals as they fed along a creek. The young male will soon be all red and his beak will turn orange. It appears the adult male is just completing his annual molt.
A member of the brushfoot family (Nymphalidae), the Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) may not be as brightly colored as some its relatives, but the intricate wing pattern is simply fascinating!
Small size and a habit of flying very close to the ground make it surprisingly easy to overlook another member of the brushfoot family, the Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon). Once you see one, however, you will want to see one again!
This is a bug. It might be a Coreid Bug. It might be a Helmeted Squash Bug. It is most likely a Leaf-footed Bug. Or, it could be all of the above as I think they all refer to the same thing: Euthochtha galeator. If anyone knows, please advise. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty impressive.
Yet another member of that brushfoot family is Florida’s official state butterfly. The Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia) is hard to miss with its long wings and stripes.
We have three species of large, dark dragonflies in our area. The females of one of them, the Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans), can be a challenge to identify as her normally reddish-brown eyes turn blue and she becomes quite dull-colored overall during late maturity.
One more brushfoot. The Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) won’t be ignored. Bright orange above and large silvery-white below they look like flying stained glass windows.
Yes, it’s summer in Florida. Yes, it’s hot and humid. Yes, it rains a lot. However, we wouldn’t trade it for anything! And despite my occasional ranting, our state parks are among the best we have experienced anywhere. Thank goodness we have these magnificent oases where we can escape to enjoy Nature.
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Crossing Saddle Creek on the footbridge, it seemed I had been transported to another place. First, there was a hill to climb – in Florida? The tall trees, the dense understory of lush ferns, curtains of vines hanging from huge limbs made it feel as if I was in a rain forest in the Amazon. A huge dragonfly rising from the path completed the illusion.
In reality, I was exploring an unfamiliar section of what has become a familiar patch, Tenoroc Fish Management Area. Parts of the 7,000+ acre reserve include several lakes which are geographically separated from the main area where the headquarters building is located. Lost Lake East and Lost Lake West are designated as canoe/kayak fishing only and no fishing from the bank is permitted. The good news for me is that hiking is allowed and a nicely maintained trail circumnavigates Lost Lake West. I hiked just over two miles along a ridge (remember that hill?) between the two lakes, descending at the southern end of Lost Lake West into a wet hardwood forest which then turned northward adjacent to the western edge of the lake. The walk was very scenic and enjoyable.
My goal was to determine if this area contained suitable habitat for attracting migrating songbirds. It did. The canopies of very tall hardwood trees are ideal for the flocks of insect hunters which will soon be looking for high protein snacks as they proceed southward. The lowland swampy woods had sections of dense willows, perfect for protecting foraging warblers. Saddle Creek meanders through the area and its banks are covered in dense weed growth attractive to myriad insect species which will, in turn, be attractive to birds looking for tasty bugs.
Although the elevation of the trail was slight by most standards, any elevation in central Florida is uncommon. The view from the eastern portion of the trail provided a unique perspective as I was able to look downward to the surface of the lakes and actually into the tops of trees from above them. I found a nice selection of birds along the way, including: Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Carolina Wren, Northern Parula Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, White-eyed Vireo, Fish Crow, Osprey, Cooper’s and Red-shouldered Hawks along with Limpkins, ibises, herons and egrets along the lake shore.
Toward the end of the walk, I took a break and sat against a stump for a few minutes. Over my head, I spotted an early fall migrating warbler, a female American Redstart. A Carolina Wren, still in molt, hopped all around trying to figure out what I was. Movement of a larger bird high in an oak tree turned out to be a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
The scouting trip turned out even better than I hoped and now that I have found them, these lakes shall no longer be “Lost“!
Saddle Creek flows from north to south just west of Lost Lake West.
The state of repair of the footbridge across the creek gives one the impression the trail may not be used all that often. Just the way I like it! (The trail itself turned out to be in good shape.)
If it hadn’t moved, I doubt I would have noticed this drab-colored Twilight Darner (Gynacantha nervosa) despite its relatively large size.
Four Tufted Titmice alternately scolded me and chased insects from the branches of tall trees along the trail.
Northern Parula warblers have a wonderful ascending call and their bright yellow breasts really stand out as they flit quickly from limb to limb. This one was framed nicely by the feathery leaves of a Sweet Acacia tree (Vachellia farnesiana).
A pair of Downy Woodpeckers probed the branches for breakfast. The male was camera shy but the lady of the house posed briefly for a portrait.
The trail along the ridge between the two lakes afforded a unique look down onto the top of the forest canopy and the surface of the lakes.
I was only able to grab a couple of quick photographs of this damselfly before it disappeared into the forest. My best guess is that it is a Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta), which would be a first for me and for our county. If anyone can help, it would be appreciated!
A curious Carolina Wren kept peeking at me while I took a break. It has not quite completed its annual molt and looks a bit unkempt.
This early bird is getting the worm. And the beetle, And the caterpillar. And anything else she can find. The female American Redstart, a warbler, flares its tail and wings with yellow patches to frighten insects from hiding places. Redstarts are one of the earliest warblers to appear in our area as fall migration is beginning.
One of the few warblers which resides here all year is the Yellow-throated Warbler. It is relatively large for a warbler and has crisp black and white plumage along with its namesake bright yellow throat.
Leaning against a stump, a movement caught my attention. Eventually, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo materialized above my head. He continued to cluck at me which made taking a nap really difficult.
At the end of the trail, a fluttering Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) paused on a leaf for a moment. The dense tree canopy didn’t allow much light through so the image is not the best, but the subject is still beautiful.
Back in the car, I called to see if Gini needed anything from the store. “How was it?”, she asked. “Very interesting”, I replied. “I guess you’ll be going back.” I guess I will.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Breakfast was delightful and enhanced by the local ambience. Alligators now recognize us on sight and popped up to the lake’s surface every few minutes to be sure we were still there. Wading birds probed the soft mud by the water for their own breakfast. Waves of cicadas sang in unison, volume rising then falling, reminding us how much we love our Sunshine State and all the natural beauty it has to offer.
Along with her ageless beauty, sparkling eyes, alert mind and incredible zest for living, Gini possesses uncommonly keen hearing. (The actual kind, in addition to the “Mother’s Radar” which knew what our children were doing even when they were at someone else’s house.) I rely on her to report which birds are chipping nearby as well as who’s singing in a field a mile away. My own hearing disappeared during my Air Force days (20 years worth of radio noise). We won’t discuss my skin, eyes, mind, etc., thank you very much.
She heard a lot this morning. White-eyed Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird. Alas, today most remained beyond camera range.
Gini pointed out a Fish Crow and Osprey perched together in a treetop. They appeared to be having a conversation. A pair of big Pileated Woodpeckers flew overhead. The commuting lanes of the morning sky were beginning to fill with White Ibises, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Boat-tailed Grackles, a Little Blue Heron and a Red-shouldered Hawk. We were getting busy, too. Every step seemed to reveal another nugget of joy Mother Nature wanted us to see. We were happy to oblige.
We have tried to tailor our trips to birding or looking for bugs or concentrating on flowers – all to no avail. It’s the “shiny object” syndrome. If we go birding, Gini will invariably exclaim: “Look at that big dragon!!” So, we attempt to multi-task as best we can. All I know is after each trip, we look at each other and agree it was a good day. Who could want for more?
Images of our after-breakfast explorations are below, if you care to glance.
I had the distinct impression I was watching two old fishermen exchanging stories about technique and the one that got away. Fish Crow and Osprey.
***NEW SPECIES*** >>>> Coffee-loving Pyrausta (Pyrausta tyralis). Now, how could I NOT adore a moth who is coffee-loving?? Sorta nice to look at, too.
We saw a familiar butterfly which at first glance seems nondescript. As you gaze at the amazing patterns on the wings, you realize how beautiful Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius) really is.
The blue wash on the upper side of a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) identifies this as a female. The male has a greenish color instead.
Easily mistaken for a wasp, the diminutive Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) is the smallest dragonfly in North America. Wings are mostly clear on the male while the female has a more dense pattern.
As far as I’ve been able to find out, the common Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) does not occur in Florida. A smaller relative, the Round-tailed Muskrat (Neofiber alleni) inhabits lakes, rivers and wetlands throughout the state. This is the first one we’ve ever seen.
As beautiful as the Monarch it mimics, a Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) hopes would-be predators know how bad that other guy tastes and will leave him alone!
Using a method different than the Viceroy of warding off predators, a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia Hübner) hopes the big “eyes” on its wings will confuse or scare a hunter.
Unconcerned with the drama of being devoured, a Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) simply hangs around all day looking beautiful.
An adjustment is needed to change my focus from trees for birds to shrubs for butterflies to individual blades of grass for the tiny damselflies. It would be a shame to pass by a Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) without saying hello and snapping a quick photo.
This cooperative Two-striped Forceptail (Aphylla williamsoni) posed nicely on a waist-high twig. Probably had been watching me struggle to kneel down and get up shooting the damselfly picture and took pity on me. I appreciated it.
Wait. What? It’s noon already? As if in answer, a roll of thunder from the south advised we should probably head home. It had been a morning of relatively few opportunities to photograph birds, but nature provided a smorgasbord of alternative subjects! Once again, we had been overwhelmed to encounter So Much – LIFE!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!