Drive-By Birding

Header Image: Lake Shore

When is the best time to go birding?

Early in the morning. Or – When the birds are feeding. Or – During migration. Or – Late in the day as they feed before roosting.

All of the above. None of the above. Any of the above.

My Dad was an avid fisherman. Tides, phase of the moon, time of day – all can influence when fish are more likely to be feeding. All things considered, Dad’s sage advice: “The best time to go fishing is when you have a chance to go fishing.”

The same is true of birding.

Sure, it would be wonderful to plan each trip down to the last detail. For a trip to some specific, perhaps distant venue, such planning is essential. However, for day-to-day bird watching, the best time to go is when you have a chance. Our lives can become so busy with jobs, family, appointments, shopping – it’s easy to become overwhelmed by life and forget that we need some balance to maintain our health and sanity.

Naturally, birding provides that balance!

So, there we were, innocently finishing a bowl of porridge adorned with fresh strawberries when we received word of a postponed appointment.

Want to go for a ride?

I know, it was already mid-morning. Yes, there’s a roast which needs a bit of preparation for dinner. Not to mention, we just visited our “patch” yesterday.

“I’ll load the car.”

I continue to marvel at my genius for marrying so well. Gini is not only my anchor in life, my motivation for making it through each day, my confidant, my best friend and lover. She can hear the birds.

Our birding patch is seven minutes from the front door. Tenoroc Fish Management Area consists of reclaimed phosphate mining land which has been designed as a fishing destination. In recent years, a shooting range, archery course and equestrian trails have been added. It is designated as a Gateway for the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

There are 19 miles of hiking trails here. They were in no danger of being overused by us on this day.

We only had a couple of hours available so we drove around the dirt roads and simply enjoyed being out in the sunshine and fresh air. A few birds begged to have a picture taken. How could we refuse? I think we only got out of the car once. Sometimes, this birding thing can almost be too easy!

Here are a few things we saw from the car.

Common Ground Dove, true to their name, love to forage on, you guessed it, “the ground”. They like open areas with a bit of grass and the edges of roads seem to fit that bill (and theirs) just fine.

One of our migratory visitors, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, has been provided with the nickname “Butterbutt” by some of the more academically inclined in the birding community.

This image was taken just after 10:30 a.m. It is a member of the morning glory family, so blooming “in the morning” appears totally understandable. Except, this is a Moonflower (Ipomoea alba), also called Tropical White Morning-glory. These flowers typically begin to open late in the day, bloom during the night and close once the sun rises. Indeed, this specimen is looking pretty ragged as it retreats from the sun. Most resources indicate the plant shouldn’t be blooming at all in January.

In our area, the Boat-tailed Grackle is quite common and the Common Grackle is usually not seen in great numbers. Tenoroc is one area we normally see at least a couple of the latter, noticeable by its bright pale eyes.

Winter brings good numbers of small Pied-billed Grebes to our lakes and ponds. Gini, having achieved the aforementioned status of more academic birder, prefers to call them by the lofty scientific moniker “Fuzzy Butts”.

Driving around a large open field which is maintained for fall dove hunting (sigh), utility poles make a convenient observation perch for the American Kestrel.

If you are an Eastern Bluebird, those Kestrel perches are just fine for tenderizing a big beetle.

So, there you are in the buffet line and there’s always that one guy who pushes his way in front of you to see what’s available today. Then, you get that uneasy feeling that perhaps YOU are the buffet item. Maybe we’ll just step over this way ……

American Alligator, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis

Planning an outing is a very good idea and can help ensure a successful trip. Once in awhile, though, a spur-of-the-moment drive-by may be just the ticket to help recharge your soul’s batteries.

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

Testing — Testing

Header Image: Snail Kite

“BBQ!”

Ribs or chicken?

“Chicken!”

Almost dark but as it’s winter it wasn’t late. Dinner time, as a matter of fact. Since I forced Gini to accompany me on an impromptu trip to the park this afternoon, it only seemed fair to treat her (okay, and me) to a dinner of her choice. Smoky chicken, green beans, potato salad. She said something about going birding late every day but I didn’t hear much of that part of the conversation.

Earlier in the day, I had been fiddling with camera equipment and suddenly had an impulse to test the results of different camera body and lens arrangements along with a variety of settings. The local park usually offers some large birds that would make suitable targets and the low afternoon angle of the sun should provide some pleasant lighting.

That luck thing was in force. We parked, I slung a camera and long lens over my shoulder, saw a woodpecker and gnatcatcher in the branches above and Gini loudly whispered: “Kite!” At the water’s edge atop a small cypress tree was a male Snail Kite. I walked in his direction trying to keep a large oak tree between us in the hope I wouldn’t scare him away. No worries. He was intent on hunting what would likely be his last meal for the day. The luck held as I was even able to change camera body and lens and came away with a few images I like.

The Florida subspecies of Snail Kite (formerly Everglades Snail Kite) (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus) appeared on federal and state endangered species lists in 1967. They remain threatened due to degradation of habitat mainly by agriculture and urban development. Their very specialized diet is almost exclusively made up of apple snails (Pomacea paludosa), which demand a clean water environment to survive. We began seeing Snail Kites at our local patch, Lake Parker Park in Polk County, about five years ago. Last year, we counted six individuals and confirmed they are breeding around the lake. Good news, indeed!

A group of White Ibises strenuously objected to one individual attempting to join their party. A stoic-looking Wood Stork stirred the shallow water and snapped up whatever tried to scoot away. Big yellow feet seemed odd-looking supporting a smallish Snowy Egret. As if to remind us of the time, an Osprey headed across the lake as the sun was setting and the moon rising.

Testing was instructive. The birds were cooperative. Dinner was delicious.

Snail Kite
Snail Kite
Snail Kite
White ibis
White ibis
Wood Stork
Wood Stork
Wood Stork
Snowy Egret
Osprey

Whether you need to test equipment, taste BBQ or just enjoy a late afternoon in the park, we hope you find the time to do what makes you happy. Life continues to be good.

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

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!