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Florida always calls to me in winter.  Especially this year, as I really wanted a break from the unusually cold weather we are having in North Carolina.

The only prep I did for this year’s trip was to sign up for the Space Coast Birding Festival, so imagine my surprise when I checked eBird my first night on the road.  THREE Ruffs were currently being seen in Alachua County, Florida.  And, two of them were in the Home Depot retention pond that was not a mile from Liz’s house!  I took this as a sign that the birding gods would favor me on this trip.

The male Ruff in Gainesville. With the wind blowing his neck feathers up, you get a hint of what he will look like in breeding plumage.

The male Ruff in Gainesville. With the wind blowing his neck feathers up, you get a hint of what he will look like in breeding plumage.

For my non-birding friends, Ruffs are shorebirds.  You might even call them boring when they are not in breeding plumage (and we rarely see them in breeding plumage here in the US), but they are rare and birders love rare birds.  Previously, I had seen only one Ruff in 10 years of birding, which I wrote about in A Smooth Trip for a Ruff.

With the Ruffs waiting for me in Florida, I got on the road early the next morning.  I got to Gainesville around noon and went directly to Home Depot.  It could not have been easier.  I walked over to the pond and immediately found both Ruffs, a male and a female, and shot some photos.  Birding mission accomplished, I then went to visit with my step-daughter, Liz, and my two granddaughters, Quinn and Casey.

Next it was south to Dunedin for a couple of days with my friends, David and Val.  Another rare bird awaited me near their house, 10 of them actually.  For the last two years, Brown Boobies, seabirds of tropical waters, have wintered in the unusual location of upper Tampa Bay.  David and I went in search of the boobies and found 6 of them roosting on towers in the bay shortly before dark.

The boobies were too far out for good photos, but a pair of Greater Scaup swam close by the pier at Safety Harbor. This pretty bird is the female.

The boobies were too far out for good photos, but a pair of Greater Scaup swam close by the pier at Safety Harbor. This pretty bird is the female.

The next day we went to Possum Branch, one of our favorite local birding spots.  We heard lots of Yellow-rumped Warbler chips as usual, but suddenly one higher pitched chip stood out.  We stopped and looked hard for the little bird.  David finally found an olive-colored warbler with a grayish head that looked like it had been dipped in a a light wash of yellow.  I was never able to get my eyes on that bird, but the next morning my luck would change.  David headed to work and I left for my drive to the east coast.  But, first I went to Kapok Park, another of our favorite spots.  I heard the chips again and this time I saw several of the plain little birds, which I could now confirm as Orange-crowned Warblers.  I was very happy that I even got a photo.

Orange-crowned Warbler at Kapok Park

Orange-crowned Warbler at Kapok Park

My warbler story may sound boring, but I hope not.  For what is more important, not just in birding, but in life, than the little joys of new discoveries, the sweetness of finding unexpected beauty in plainness?  All made sweeter when shared with a friend.  Life birds are great, but these magic moments are what I live for.

My next four days were filled with gulls.  I had signed up for almost all the gull field trips and workshops that the festival offered.  That’s a lot of gulls even for a normal birder, but I wanted to learn all that I could.  On Wednesday, we started with a trip to the Cocoa Landfill.  After a short introduction to the workings of the landfill, we headed out to look for birds.  We saw Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls.

Amar Ayyash and me

Amar Ayyash and me

I was signed up for the “Gull Fly-In” at 3:30 that afternoon, but Amar Ayyash, one of the trip leaders, said that he was going early and that I was welcome to go with him.  We grabbed a quick drive-thru lunch and ate in the car as we headed to Frank Rendon Park at Daytona Beach Shores.  This particular stretch of beach is popular with wintering gulls.  It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 gulls sometimes roost on the beach.  They come in big numbers late in the afternoon for a few hours before heading offshore for the night, but at 1:00 PM, there were enough birds to keep us busy.  Amar quickly found all the expected species – everything we had seen at the landfill plus Great Black-backed Gull – as well as a couple of hybrid candidates.  I tried to soak in all the information that I could, but, as a beginner, I was overwhelmed.  I took as many photos as possible for later study.

This bird has a ring on its bill, so it's a Ring-billed Gull, right? Nope, it's a Herring Gull. Most of those common field marks only apply to adults. This bird is an "adult type," probably a 4th cycle bird.

This bird has a ring on its bill, so it’s a Ring-billed Gull, right? Nope, it’s a Herring Gull. Most common field marks only apply to adults. This bird is an “adult type,” probably a 4th cycle bird, but not yet fully mature.

 

Hmm. What's this bird with the dark tip to its bill? Yep, another "adult type" Herring Gull. The smaller bird to the left is an adult Ring-billed Gull.

Hmm. What’s this bird with the dark tip to its bill? Yep, another “adult type” Herring Gull. The smaller bird to the left is an adult Ring-billed Gull.

 

A 1st cycle Great Black-backed Gull. We saw quite a few of these beautiful birds. I love the clean, crisp pattern.

A 1st cycle Great Black-backed Gull. We saw quite a few of these beautiful birds. I love the clean, crisp pattern.

 

This big, beautiful young gull is probably a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, frequently called "Nelson's Gull."

This big, beautiful young gull is probably a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, frequently called “Nelson’s Gull.”

And, all of this was before the official festival field trip even began!  After we were joined by Michael Brothers, Florida’s leading gull expert, and the 30 to 40 festival participants, we continued walking on the beach, sometimes only about 20 feet from the birds, until 6:00 PM.  We saw literally thousands of Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls and good numbers of the other species, too.  We added Iceland Gull to our list with two individuals.  A few appear in Florida most winters, but they are unusual enough to be considered rare.

Iceland Gull at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, January 24, 2018

Iceland Gull at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, January 24, 2018

The next morning, it was back to the Cocoa Landfill.  I considered skipping a second trip to the same location, but I woke up early and decided that it would be a good chance to study the Lesser Black-backed Gulls that we had seen on the first day.  After the talk about the landfill, we went to the area where everything was covered with a black tarp and water had collected on top.  There was a little shallow pool at one end and the others walked down there to see the Bonaparte’s Gulls.  I had seen them the day before, so I stayed put, fiddling with my camera, when Chris Brown, one of our guides, came to get me.  “Shelley, I think you will want to see this.”  As I hurried to where the others had gathered, the bird with a red bill immediately caught my eye.  “OMG, it’s a Black-headed Gull,” I squealed, delighted to finally see this species in the US.  And, this was a beautiful bird, a healthy-looking adult, giving us a much closer view than I’d ever had in China.

Black-headed Gull, Cocoa Landfill, January 25, 2018

Black-headed Gull, Cocoa Landfill, January 25, 2018

I enjoyed the rest of the festival, especially Amar’s gull identification workshop.  Amar is a living encyclopedia of knowledge about gulls and my goal is to learn enough that I can follow his discussions on the Facebook group, “North American Gulls” and his blog Anything Larus.

The last field trip that I’d signed up for was to Jetty Park at Cape Canaveral on Saturday morning.  The trip leaders were Amar, Jeff Gordon, and Greg Miller, one of the birders featured in the book and movie “The Big Year.”  While waiting for everyone to arrive, Greg and I quickly discovered that we are distant cousins.  It was fun to meet Greg and I’m looking forward to future discussions about our shared ancestors.

Greg Miller and me at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral

Greg Miller and me at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral

Jeff Gordon reminded me that he was a birding guide before he was ABA President when I casually asked if we might see any Northern Gannets and a few minutes later he pulled in a gorgeous adult nice and close.  I had seen thousands of them in NC, but this was a new Florida bird.  I never get tired of watching these beautiful birds plunge headfirst into the water.

Our leaders that morning were alert to anything interesting and found this Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the beach. They are not really jellyfish, but the closely-related siphonophore, a colony of individuals.

Portuguese Man o' War

Portuguese Man o’ War

Jetty Park was the end of the festival for me.  The time with Amar had significantly improved my gull knowledge and ID skills and I enjoyed seeing old friends and making new ones.  But, my time in Florida was not quite up yet.

What's a trip to Florida without a Loggerhead Shrike? I observed this bird at Viera Wetlands calling and singing almost continuously.

What’s a trip to Florida without a Loggerhead Shrike? I observed this bird at Viera Wetlands calling and singing almost continuously.

My friend Kerry was in Florida for the winter and we had made arrangements to go birding after the festival.  I had asked Kerry for her target list of birds that she wanted to see and she listed just one – Snail Kite.  I suggested that we go to Three Lakes WMA and then Joe Overstreet Road and the little marina on Lake Kissimmee.  The night before we would meet, I was getting tired and I began to worry.  What if we didn’t see anything at Three Lakes?  What if we missed the Snail Kite?  I thought about changing our plan to include more opportunities to find Snail Kite and I fell asleep worrying.

Perhaps I dreamed of eagles. Kerry and I would see five Bald Eagles the next day.

Perhaps I dreamed of eagles. Kerry and I would see five Bald Eagles the next day.

A night’s sleep must have refreshed me.  I awoke feeling much more optimistic and decided to stick with our plan.  It wasn’t long after our arrival at Three Lakes that we started seeing birds.  Shortly after we started down the main road, we both caught a glimpse of something light in a distant clump of trees.  I thought caracara and Kerry thought eagle.  A moment later we saw an eagle fly out.  And, then we saw something in the trees again – there WAS a caracara!  But, Kerry saw another bird, too.  We got out the scope and discovered an eagle perched about 10 feet from the caracara.  What was a young Crested Caracara doing with two adult Bald Eagles?  It was too far for a photo, but I’m sure we will both remember our fascinating raptor sighting.

We kept seeing more birds – Eastern Towhees so close that we could see their white eyes (our North Carolina towhees have dark eyes), oodles of beautiful Pine Warblers, an Orange-crowned Warbler, Purple Gallinules, and many more species.

My photo is poor, but our looks at the Snail Kite were great.

My photo is poor, but our looks at the Snail Kite were great.

We had such a great time birding at Three Lakes that it was after noon when we got to Joe Overstreet Road.  We slowly drove the five miles to the marina, parked the car, and walked to the little pier.  Kerry was ahead of me and before I caught up with her, I heard something like, “There’s the Snail Kite.  Oh, there are two of them.”  We enjoyed the show for about an hour, with great looks at the kites as they hunted for snails, occasionally flying just 20 feet in front of us.

I had not needed to worry.  We ended the day with 60 species, a life bird for Kerry, and memories of a beautiful day that neither of us will forget.

This gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sat on a fence post outside our car window on Joe Overstreet Road and sang almost non-stop. He was still singing as we finally pulled away and continued down the road.

This gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sat on a fence post outside our car window on Joe Overstreet Road and sang almost non-stop. He was still singing as we finally pulled away and continued down the road.

It was another great trip to Florida.  More photos will be posted to Flickr soon.  My photos of birds are also on eBird and can be seen here.

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Most birders don’t head to Florida in the summer.  And, I wouldn’t either if my step-daughters and my best friend didn’t live there.  I lived in Florida, too, for over 30 years, so it still feels like home and I visit every chance I get, even in summer.  Mid-day can be brutally hot and muggy, but nights are usually balmy and lovely.  The fresh gulf air brings memories of childhood summer days spent at St. Pete and Clearwater beaches.  How I wish my mother were here to see how much like her I’ve become.  As a teenager, I wanted to go to the beaches with nothing but pure white sand.  My parents preferred beaches with signs of life – sandpipers, pelicans, fiddler crabs, shells (some still alive).

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

I’ve had many rewards for summer birding in Florida.  The first was seeing brand-new just-fledged Snowy Plovers on July 7, 2008, on Caladesi Island.  David and I devoted an entire day to searching for these birds which had risen to the top of my most wanted list.  Their light colors blend into the sand in the hot summer sun, but David quickly found a group of five.

Loggerhead Shrikes are also memorable summer birds.  On June 27, 2009, I was thrilled to watch a Loggerhead Shrike family at St. Pete’s North Shore Park.

A juvenile Loggerhead Shrike enjoys lunch provided by a parent.

A juvenile Loggerhead Shrike enjoys lunch provided by a parent.

On June 22, 2013, we enjoyed a group of 14 Black-necked Stilts, including several juveniles, in a ditch between the road and the county landfill.

Juvenile Black-necked Stilt

Adult Black-necked Stilt

 

This year I headed south on June 20, the first day of summer and my step-daughter Debbie’s birthday.  My first stop was Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s birdier in winter, but I enjoyed watching mama Red-winged Blackbird feed two begging fledglings.  Common Gallinules were accompanied by little fuzz balls.   I tallied 20 species and drove to my motel.

Common Gallinule

Juvenile Common Gallinule. Note the feet on that baby!

I went back to Savannah NWR the next morning and then drove on to Harris Neck NWR, another of my favorite places to stop on the way to Florida.  Harris Neck’s Woody Pond is one of the south’s biggest rookeries and it overflows with Wood Storks, White Ibises, Great Egrets, and other wading birds in the spring and summer.  Harris Neck also hosts breeding Painted Buntings.  They are a little shy, but I was able to photograph this gorgeous male after he flew from the feeder to a close-by tree.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

Quinn and me

Quinn and me

I made it to Gainesville that evening in time for dinner with my step-daughter Liz and her family.  For the next three days I went to Sweetwater Wetlands Park for a couple hours in the morning and then spent the rest of the day with the girls.  It was fun to catch up with Debbie and her horse and spend time with Liz and her young daughters, Quinn and Casey.  We took Casey to see “Finding Dory,” the first movie that I’ve seen in years.  Quinn seemed immune to the heat and enjoyed our time at the “weekend park.”

Sweetwater Wetlands Park was created to improve water quality in Paynes Prairie.  It filters pollutants from urban runoff and wastewater which were harming the Alachua Sink with an excess of nitrogen.  The wetlands were also designed to also be an environmentally friendly park.  The result is outstandingly successful.  It is beautiful and functional and 217 species of birds have been reported there since work on the wetlands began in 2008.

 

One species that I especially appreciated was Least Bittern.  I had seen this secretive bird only a few times previously, but at Sweetwater there were lots of them and I even got a photo.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Birds at Sweetwater are accustomed to people; Limpkins and Purple Gallinules perch right on the boardwalk rail.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

On Friday I moved farther south to visit David and Val in Dunedin.  We had a rather quiet weekend, but I always enjoy spending time in the county where I grew up.  On my first evening there, Ruddy Turnstones entertained me on the Dunedin Causeway.  My appreciation for this common bird has increased since David and I found a banded one (with color flags) on August 11, 2012.  I reported that bird to Bandedbirds.org and learned that it had been banded along the Delaware Bayshore in the month of May, most likely in Delaware in 2009.  Ruddy Turnstones have a very wide range, but North American birds breed in the far north arctic and winter along the U.S. coast and southwards to the southern tip of South America.  The turnstone that David and I found had already flown thousands of miles in its young life.

Ruddy Turnstone, June 2016, on the Dunedin Causeway

Ruddy Turnstone, June 2016, on the Dunedin Causeway

On Saturday morning, David and I found another banded bird, a Least Tern, and this one had color bands enabling it to be traced to a specific bird.  It had a very interesting history related to us by Dr. Marianne Korosy.  “This bird was banded at the Ulmerton Warehouse complex, a rooftop nesting colony of least terns located just west of intersection of Starkey and Ulmerton Rd. in central Pinellas County in 2011.  It was banded as a chick when it fell off the roof there and survived unharmed. It was banded and then returned to the roof.  The last time this bird was seen was July 20, 2011 on the south end of Clearwater Beach.”  Our report was the first in five years!

Banded Least Tern

Banded Least Tern

Least Terns are also migration champions.  They leave North America entirely in winter, moving to tropical waters as far south as Brazil.

One of the young Least Terns in the flock at Courtney Campbell Beach.

One of the young Least Terns in the flock at Courtney Campbell Beach.

I left for home on Monday morning and decided to try some different birding stops on this trip.  First was Okefenokee NWR in Georgia.  I enjoyed getting to know the place a little.  Several Bobwhites called during my few hours there.  Bachman’s Sparrows were singing all along the wildlife drive.  I made a mental note to go back some time in spring.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Next was a detour to Tybee Island.  A Lesser Black-backed Gull and Common Terns had been reported recently and I thought it would be fun to see them.  After I finally found the north beach and a parking spot, I walked to the water.  I had no idea which way to walk, so I turned right.  No birds were in sight except for a cormorant and a couple of Brown Pelicans that few over the water.  I resigned myself to having wasted several hours for nothing.  And, then I saw the flock!  Literally hundreds of birds were at the water’s edge where the shoreline curved.  I love this kind of birding; the birds calmly stayed put or flew just a short distance before settling down.  There were no trees for them to hide in.  Yes, beach birding is definitely the way to go for those with poor vision.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

I had no trouble finding the Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst the Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns which made up 98% of the flock.  I also found two Common Terns, a few Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, and two Black Skimmers in the flock.  I love gulls and terns, so this turned out to be a good stop after all.  After taking photos, I hurried back to my car and set the GPS to “go home.”

More photos from this trip are on Flickr in my NC to FL – June 2016 album.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

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News flash – I just saw my 600th ABA bird! Please pardon this interruption to my series of Alaska posts, but this is just too exciting to not share now. Birders, feel free to skip ahead while I attempt to explain to my non-birding friends just what an “ABA bird” is. ABA is the American Birding Association, a wonderful organization that serves birders with publications aimed at improving birding skills, promotion of conservation, summer camps for teens, and lots of other fun and important birding stuff. It is also the official keeper of LISTS. Avid birders love lists and ABA members can report theirs for comparison to other birders. The “ABA area” is basically all of North America north of Mexico. So, a birder’s ABA list is the list of all the birds that he or she has observed in the ABA area.

Green Heron - The ABA

Green Heron – The ABA “Bird of the Year” for 2015

Back in the 1960s, it was quite an accomplishment to join the “600 Club.” But, the Internet, email, listservs, eBird, Facebook, and cell phones have totally changed birding from a few decades ago. Now, news of a rare bird travels fast and within hours dozens of birders may see a rarity. This rapid communication has enabled many to see 700 species in the ABA area and some have even observed over 800 ABA birds, but that achievement requires a lot of time, money, energy, and ambition. To put these numbers in perspective, there are only 671 regularly occurring birds in North America and many of those are found only in small numbers in particular locations. Another 308 species are rare and many of those have been observed in North America only a few times.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

I was getting close to 600 ABA birds when I left for Alaska in June. I needed 42 more and there were 42 birds on last year’s trip list that I had not seen. I had a chance! But, birds change from year to year and I got only 40 ABA birds in Alaska. I needed two more birds. And, then I learned that the non-migratory Whooping Cranes that I had seen in Florida last year were now countable. I needed only one more bird! Of course, I was excited about the possibilities, but this wasn’t going to be easy. I would figure out a plan for #600 later.

On August 11, I left for Gainesville, Florida, for a family visit. I planned to just drive down, visit family, and drive back home. I didn’t even take my scope or hiking shoes. Since I got back from Alaska a few weeks earlier, I had not paid much attention to what was happening outside my home county. But, after I got to Florida, I discovered that Smooth-billed Anis were being reported at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge every day. There was mention of a nest, so I expected the birds to continue to be there for a while. I had seen Anis in Ecuador, but not in the ABA area. This could be my #600! I altered my plans so that I could drive to South Florida and see the Anis after visiting with my family.

Smooth-billed Ani

Smooth-billed Ani

I didn’t know if a scope was required or not, but I wanted to be sure that I’d have the best views possible. Fortunately, Angel & Mariel Abreu of Nature Is Awesome Birding & Wildlife Tours were available for the day. They would also try to help me get Black-whiskered Vireo for #601 and we could spend the remainder of the day looking for South Florida specialty butterflies.

On August 16, we arrived at Loxahatchee at 9:00 AM and found two Smooth-billed Anis right away. They could not have been more cooperative and we had fun watching the birds preen and fly around a little, but never out of sight. We could see detail in every feather with the scope and we got good photos.

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

We also saw the first two of six new butterflies for me that day, Phaon Crescent and Ruddy Daggerwing.

Ruddy Daggerwing

Ruddy Daggerwing

Phaon Crescent

Phaon Crescent

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the Anis and drove down to Key Largo to look for the Black-whiskered Vireos that Angel and Mariel had scouted the previous day. They both saw three birds after just a few minutes, but it took over two hours for me to get a satisfying look. Angel and Mariel never once complained while we stood there in the August heat. Finally, I got a good enough look at one of the birds and we moved on to look for more butterflies.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

We went to an area of the Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site that requires a backcountry pass, which the Abreus had obtained the previous day when scouting for the vireo. We saw a few birds and a Florida Purplewing, a rare butterfly that is officially listed as a “Species of Special Concern” due to its declining population and disappearance from most of its historic range. I’m sure that the beautiful Purplewing was the highlight of the day for Angel and Mariel.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

Our last stop was at a pine rockland preservation in Homestead. At first glance, it looked like any other Florida pine forest with saw palmetto understory. But, as soon as we stepped off the path and carefully walked through the rocks, I could see how different this was. Pine rockland exists only in southern Florida and parts of the Bahamas. It is typically a savanna-like forest on limestone outcroppings with a canopy of Florida Slash Pine and a diverse understory of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Pine rocklands are home to a significant number of rare plants and animals found in no other habitat, including several Federally Endangered plants. Its delicate beauty becomes apparent once you really look at the life it hosts. Sadly, pine rockland is an endangered ecosystem with only a few fragments remaining in South Florida and some of those are slated for development.

Baracoa Skipper

Baracoa Skipper

Ceranus Blue

Ceranus Blue

Butterflies we found there were Baracoa Skipper and Ceranus Blue.

Curve-lined Cydosia Moth

Our last sighting of the day, just before dark at that same location, was the Curve-lined Cydosia Moth in the photo to the left, which is found from southern Florida south to Argentina. This beautiful moth is not very common and it was new to all of us.

I could not have asked for a more cooperative or interesting bird for ABA #600.  Thanks to Angel and Mariel for another fun day. As always, I left South Florida looking forward to returning again soon.

My next post will be another on Alaska.  Follow along with me on more birding adventures.

Angel Mariel and me

Angel, Mariel, and me

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After five days of birding in southeast Florida, it was time to pick up Kitty in Naples on Friday, April 17. Several weeks before the trip, I learned about the American Flamingos that had been discovered several years ago in Stormwater Treatment Area 2 (STA 2) in Palm Beach County. This year, for the first time, birders were being allowed access to the area through the Audubon Society of the Everglades. Wild flamingos are difficult birds to see. Even if one is willing to brave the heat and mosquitoes, Snake Bight in no longer a reliable option. When the birds sporadically show up in the Everglades, a boat is usually required to get to them. So, the STA 2 birds represented a unique opportunity. The only problem was that space on the scheduled trips was limited and many more people wanted to see the birds than there were spaces available. We were on the waiting list for Saturday, April 18. We had been told that if we made the cut, we would be notified two days prior to the trip, but in my mind I had set the cut-off time as noon on Friday. Everything went smoothly on Friday morning. I picked Kitty up at noon and after a quick stop at Eagles Lakes Park, we headed north.

Eagles Lake Park, Naples, on my first visit in 2007.

Eagles Lake Park, Naples, on my first visit in 2007.

We planned to drive through central Florida and spend the night in Winter Haven. Kitty had a fabulous Everglades trip and I enjoyed hearing about it as we slowly made our way north. We stopped for a late lunch/early dinner at Beef O’Brady’s in Arcadia at about 4:00 PM. While waiting for our food to arrive, I checked my email and there it was – a message that we were in for the Flamingo trip! I was caught by surprise and disoriented about where we were and where the flamingos were. The exact location had been kept secret from us, but I knew that it was about 40 minutes from Clewiston. Kitty calmly looked as a map and simply said, “We can do it.” So, we quickly replied “Yes” we will be there, cancelled our motel reservations, made new reservations for the night, and headed east.

Our route on Friday

Our route on Friday

State Road 70 seemed familiar to me. I was pretty sure that this was where David and I had found our lifer Crested Caracaras back in 2008, so I suggested to Kitty that she look up Crested Caracara in the Peterson field guide. A short time later, Kitty found her own Caracara and then two more.

Crested Caracara from my January trip to Florida

Crested Caracara from my January trip to Florida

The next morning I went to breakfast at the Best Western in Clewiston and saw two people who looked like birders. So, I took a chance, walked over and said “Good morning. Are you birders?” Yes, they were. Bill and Lena from Corvallis, Oregon and I chatted a few minutes and then I hurried to get ready for the drive to STA 2. We arrived half an hour early, but were still car #7. Car-pooling is strictly enforced for these trips and we were happy to have two rather new birders ride with us. The leaders didn’t waste any time after approximately 60 people were checked in. We drove the 7 miles to the area where the flamingos were usually seen as fast at the dirt roads allowed. Before we even stopped, the leader announced on his walkie-talkie that he saw the birds. Next I heard “They’re flying.” But before my heart sank, “They are coming closer!” Five American Flamingos were then feeding so close that we could see them without binoculars. With a scope, the view was wonderful. Yet they were far enough that we didn’t disturb their feeding.  We enjoyed watching as they stood on one leg and stomped with the other foot to stir up food from the bottom of the shallow water. They completely submerged their heads under the water to feed. Fascinating details about Flamingo diet and feeding behavior can be found here, here, and here.  The group consisted of serious birders, casual nature lovers, and everyone in between. There was mutual acknowledgement that this was special and we all shared the joy of the experience.

American Flamingos at STA 2, Palm Beach County

American Flamingos at STA 2, Palm Beach County

The STA 2 trip lasted from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM. We drove 20 miles on the dirt berms and enjoyed many other birds in addition to the flamingos – Black Skimmers, White Pelicans, Black-necked Stilts, and more. Seeing the flamingos would have been a wonderful end to the trip, but we were not quite ready to head for home. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was our next destination and the Quality Inn in Titusville was the logical place to spend the night.  Early the next morning, I went to breakfast and who did I see? Yes, Bill and Lena from Oregon again! The four of us enjoyed breakfast together and then Kitty and I headed to Merritt Island. It was MUCH quieter than when I’d been there in January, but Kitty and I are both easily amused and never fail to find something interesting. That morning it was the Red-breasted Mergansers cruising with backs raised and heads under water so that they looked more like mammals than birds. Kitty speculated that the water was too shallow for diving and back home that theory was confirmed.

My life Red-breasted Merganser from Honeymoon Island in 2007.

My life Red-breasted Merganser from Honeymoon Island in 2007.

Our last stop of the trip was the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. It’s a very nice facility with all the native raptors of Florida. We especially enjoyed close-up looks at the Kestrel and Merlin. It was hot and our energy was running a little low on this day 11 of our travels. So, happy and tired, we headed for home.

Red-shouldered Hawk, a common Florida raptor observed earlier in the trip in Everglades National Park.

Red-shouldered Hawk, a common Florida raptor observed earlier in the trip in Everglades National Park.

While nothing was as exotic as Asia or South America, this was one of my favorite trips ever. Sharing much of it with friends made it even better. Part of me will always be a Florida girl and I am excited to think about the adventures that still await me there.

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On Tuesday morning, April 14, I headed off to Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park to look for a Mangrove Cuckoo. I dipped on the cuckoo, but found a gazillion White-eyed Vireos. Well, maybe that count is exaggerated a bit, but not much. The only other bird as numerous at Dagny is Northern Cardinal. After searching fruitlessly for a couple of hours, I decided to head to Long Key State Park. My late husband, Burt, and I frequently camped at Long Key in the early 1980’s, so it holds many fond memories. Plus, I could get lucky and find a Key West Quail-Dove. Could get lucky, but I didn’t. I found only two birds – a Prairie Warbler and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. It was the wrong time of day, but at least I had tried. I went back to Dagny Johnson for another attempt at finding the cuckoo. I dipped again, went to my motel, and sent Angel and Mariel a note about my failure to find the cuckoo. Angel and Mariel Abreu operate “Nature Is Awesome,” a birding and wildlife tour company, and I would be going out with them on Thursday. I quickly received a reply with specific directions to where the cuckoos are usually found at Dagny.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo.  Photo by Andy Reago.

I really wanted to find the Mangrove Cuckoo on my own rather than have someone show it to me. Even though I had only looked for it once before, it had been one of my most wanted birds for years. And, now I had one day to find it for myself or Angel and Mariel would find it for me the following day. I went to the spot at Dagny that they described and got nothing. So, I walked around for an hour and then went back to the same spot. I played the call. And, the bird answered! First I heard it to the right and then to the left. And, then it perched right over me and I got a great look. I was just numb with disbelief. I watched until the bird moved and then I stepped out into the open circle where the paths converge. And, now the cuckoo was out in the open! This was one of the happiest birding moments of my life.  I didn’t get a photo, but here is a shot of a Mangrove Cuckoo that Mariel Abreu got earlier in the year.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo

I slowly walked back to the car and met Ottawa birder Paul Lagasi as I was about to leave the park. Paul also has a blog, BIRDQUEST2004, which is a showcase for his gorgeous photos. His accounting of this part of the trip is here. Paul wanted the cuckoo as badly as I had. This was his seventh attempt to find it. So, of course, we went back and attempted to relocate the bird. Unfortunately, the bird was done with birders for the day. Paul and I walked the big 2-mile loop in the mid-day head with hopes of finding either the cuckoo or a Black-whiskered Vireo. We had no luck with either bird, so I invited Paul to join me with Angel and Mariel the following morning.

Seaside Dragonlet

Seaside Dragonlet, a “lifer” dragonfly on the 2-mile walk at Dagny Johnson.

Have you guessed what happened? Yep, we missed seeing the cuckoo the next day. We went to the location where it had been reliably seen for months.  The cuckoo called, but refused to come out and show itself. Now I really understood how incredibly lucky I had been the previous day. Paul headed off to pick up his wife at the Ft. Lauderdale airport and Angel, Mariel, and I headed to El Mago de las Fritas for the best fritas in town. Mariel and I had ours with an egg on top of the meat patty. Yum!

White-winged Parakeets in front of Ocean Bank

White-winged Parakeets in front of Ocean Bank

Red-whiskered Bulbul that I photographed in China.

Red-whiskered Bulbul that I photographed in China.

That afternoon, Angel and Mariel took me on a tour of Miami searching for established exotic avian species. Many of these birds are now ABA countable and they found every single one that I needed. That afternoon I added FIVE birds to my ABA list – Spot-breasted Oriole, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-winged Parakeet, Muscovy Duck, and Egyptian Goose. I had seen the Red-whiskered Bulbul many times in China and India, but I still learned something new from Angel. The red patch on the face really is whiskers, just as the bird’s name suggests. If you look closely, you can see the whiskers stand out from the face.

Spot-breasted Oriole.  Photo by Angel Abreu.

Spot-breasted Oriole. Photo by Angel Abreu.

Non-native species frequently create serious environmental problems, including pushing out native species. As far as I know, though, the exotic bird species in Miami have not created any problems. The parakeets, for example, seem to have found a unique niche not utilized by other birds, so there is no competition.

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Mr. & Mrs. Egyptian Goose in the photos above.  The male with the darker neck and breast spot is on the left.  Below, they take their goslings for a swim.

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In addition to the exotic birds that we found, I also enjoyed my best ever looks at a native species, White-crowned Pigeon, which reaches the northernmost limit of its range in Miami.

White-crowned Pigeon

White-crowned Pigeon

We finished the day near dusk with more exotic species, the not yet countable Orange-winded Parakeet and Common Hill Myna, and our first-of-the-season Common Nighthawk. It was a lovely end to a wonderful day. Angel and Mariel not only know where to find the birds, they are incredibly nice people and it was fun to spend a day with them. If you need a birding guide in South Florida, I highly recommend Nature is Awesome. I’d had some wonderful birding, but the trip was not yet over.  Watch for Part 3.

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It was crazy to do this trip. I am going to Alaska in June and I had promised Myrna that I would visit her in California. I really didn’t need to cram in another spring trip. It all started when Kitty Jensen was telling me about her Everglades trip with the National Park Conservation Association. “I’ll just fly Allegiant to Punta Gorda,” she began. I interrupted with “No, you won’t. Allegiant no longer flies there from Greensboro. It would be easier for me to just drive you down.” As usual, I blurted this out without first engaging my brain. But, it would give me a chance to look for Mangrove Cuckoo and other South Florida specialties while Kitty was doing her Everglades trip. The cuckoo was a bird that I really wanted. I had been waiting for a chance to go to Florida in April since Jeff and I missed the cuckoo in 2011. So, when Myrna asked me to visit the first week in April, everything fell into place.

Wood Storks, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Wood Storks, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Kitty and I decided to slowly drive down and back, with lots of stops along the way. We left late on the morning of April 9 and got to South Carolina in time for a quick spin through Savannah National Wildlife Refuge’s Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive before dark. The next morning we enjoyed the wildlife drive at Harris Neck NWR and then drove through the Osceola National Forest on our way to Gainesville, Florida, where we spent the night.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

On Saturday morning, we went to one of my favorite birding spots in Florida, Lake Panasoffkee Wildlife Management Area. On our way there, I listed all the birds that we could see – Loggerhead Shrike, American Kestrel, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-headed Woodpecker. For the first time that I visited the site, other birders were there. As we left, the group was assembled under the Kestrel nest box where a Florida Fish & Wildlife officer was speaking. We were sure that he was talking about the Southeastern subspecies of American Kestrel, which is threatened in Florida. Just before we exited onto the main road, we saw a Kestrel perched in a tree on the other side of an open field. We had seen every single species that I’d mentioned, plus a Northern Bobwhite for a bonus!

We finished the day by driving to Naples, where I dropped Kitty off for her Everglades trip.

Eurasian Collared-Dove

I continued on to Florida City, where I met a friend who lives in Florida. We had a great day on Sunday driving through the Florida Keys. We didn’t have time for normal birding, so we enjoyed this very tame Eurasian Collared-Dove who pecked at bread crumbs right at our feet while we had lunch in Key West.

We made time to look for Key Deer on our way back.  Feeding the deer is legally prohibited, but people must do it anyway as the deer are very tame.

Key Deer on No Name Key

Key Deer on No Name Key

We spent the next day in the Everglades, slowly driving from Florida City to Flamingo. We started just outside the park entrance and found five Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. I think of the flycatcher as a Texas bird, but they frequently winter in Florida.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We always enjoy watching common birds and that day the Black Vultures held our attention. At Paurotis Pond, we watched this “couple” preen each other, or do what would have been preening if there had been any feather on their heads. They allowed us very close, but we backed off to give them some privacy. Before anything really exciting could happen with the vultures, a couple from Sweden pulled in. It was their first trip to Florida and they were looking for Roseate Spoonbills. We pointed out where the birds were and enjoyed chatting with them for a while. I’m sure that they would have found the birds without us, but they were very grateful for our help. Before they left, the man said, “I’ve got to give you something” and ran over to his car. He came back with a pen from the company that he works for and gave it to me.

Black Vultures, Everglades National Park

Black Vultures, Everglades National Park

We continued our drive towards Flamingo enjoying the typical Everglades sights – Red-shouldered Hawks, Swallow-tailed Kites, Woodstorks. At Eco Pond, we found a flock of 26 Black-necked Stilts. Near the amphitheater at the Flamingo Visitor Center, we found an Osprey nest with three large juveniles who looked like they were ready to fledge at any moment.

Osprey, Everglades National Park

Osprey, Everglades National Park

We returned to Florida City just before dark and easily found a Common Myna in its natural Florida City habitat – the drive-thru at Long John Silver’s!

Common Myna

Common Myna

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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Osprey at Honeymoon Island

Osprey at Honeymoon Island

Thanksgiving week started early with Nate Dias’ Curlew / Marsh Sparrow boat trip in the Cape Romain NWR on November 18.  My goal was to get a good look at a Saltmarsh Sparrow, which would be a life bird for me.  I stopped at Huntington Beach State Park on my way down where I missed all three marsh sparrows which were seen before I arrived.  I was disappointed, but I had good looks at four individual Clapper Rails – swimming, walking, and bathing.

As we left the dock in McClellanville the next morning, duck hunters were returning saying that the weather was too bad for them!  It was very cold and windy and it rained most of the day.  Nate reported the most marsh sparrows in a couple of miles that he had ever seen, including “12-13 firmly identified Saltmarsh Sparrows.”  However, I did not get a good enough view of any to count as a lifer.  It was fun to put faces with familiar names from the Carolinabirds listserv, though, and it was a good trip in spite of the weather.

On Monday, I birded Altamaha WMA with Sandy Beasley, whom I had met in January at the Georgia Ornithological Society meeting.  I had birded Altamaha before, but did not know the area at all well.  Sandy showed me new areas on the west side of the road and we had a very nice day.  Now I know where to find birds as well as where to go for a great lunch!

Quinn

Quinn enjoying a beautiful Thanksgiving day in Jim & Debbie’s yard

Acacia and Casey

Granddaughter Acacia (Debbie’s oldest) holding Casey (Liz’ youngest)

Thanksgiving with my stepdaughters Debbie and Liz was wonderful.  Debbie’s significant other, Jim, and I birded together again this year.  He took me to Watermelon Pond, a place where he has fished for 20 years.  Jim had not been there lately, though, and was surprised to discover that the lake was dry and the area is now an official Wildlife and Environmental Area.  I was thrilled to discover this wonderful place that focuses on preserving several Florida Threatened species including Southeastern American Kestrel and Gopher Tortoise.  We saw Kestrels and I also had my best look ever at a gorgeous adult male Northern Harrier at Watermelon Pond.

The highlight of Thanksgiving was not birds, though, but seeing the wonderful progress that Liz’ autistic two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Quinn, is making.  I visited in August, just before she started ABA therapy (Applied Behavioral Analysis).  The difference in her behavior and interactions with people in just three months is remarkable.  Her progress includes a little eye contact now, a huge step for an autistic child.

Limpkin

Limpkin at Kapok Park

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher on Courtney Campbell Causeway

I headed to Dunedin the day after Thanksgiving to spend the weekend with good friends David and Val.  David and I birded our favorite spots on Friday afternoon and talked about Quinn in between birds.  Her therapists were using an iPad with her so I wanted to get a tablet that Liz could use with her, too.  We considered options and compared Android devices to the Apple iPad for a couple of hours before deciding upon an iPad.  David, ever smart and creative, devised a plan that would allow us to bird all the way to the Apple store.  We saw some of our favorite birds along the way – Limpkins at Kapok Park and American Oystercatchers on the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

John Hood, President of Clearwater Audubon, and I had met in August at the Hog Island Audubon camp in Maine.  On Saturday, David and I birded with John.  We learned where to park for the Tierra Verde “duck ponds” and finally got to see the hundreds of Redheads that winter there.

At Fort De Soto, John easily found the Long-billed Curlew that has been there for two years.  David and I had been unable to find it on my last visit.  We enjoyed John’s company and learned a lot about birding in Pinellas County due to his local expertise.

Least Sandpiper, Sanderling,a nd Dunlin at Fort De Soto

Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, and Dunlins at Fort De Soto

"My frog is still wiggling"

“My frog is still wiggling.”

"Maybe if I squeeze real hard"

“Maybe if I squeeze real hard.”

"Shaking is good, but I'm getting weeds on my frog"

“Shaking is good, but I’m getting weeds on my frog.”

"He's subdued now, but I still can't get it down"

“He’s subdued now, but I still can’t get it down.”

"I'll try scrunching it up into one big bite."

“I’ll try scrunching it up into one big bite.”

On Sunday, David and I headed to Honeymoon Island where we enjoyed the “usual suspects” including many Ospreys. We are fascinated with herons attempting to eat large prey and watched a juvenile Little Blue Heron struggle with a large frog.  Before we could see how this story would end, a biker came along and the heron flew off with his frog.  We hoped that the frog made a good lunch.

It was time to head home on Monday morning, but my adventures were not quite yet over.  My plan was to stay in Hardeeville and bird at Savannah NWR on Tuesday morning.  As I passed the turn-off for Tybee Island, I impulsively decided try for the Saltmarsh Sparrow at Ft. Pulaski.  I called Sandy Beasley that evening and she gave me very detailed directions to where she had seen the sparrows earlier in the month.  There would be a high tide at 6:41 AM, so I decided to go for it.

I arrived at 7:30 AM and was disappointed to find much vegetation visible in the marsh.  The birds could be anywhere and I was afraid that I had missed them.  With a little patience, though, I did find the birds and got a great look at one Saltmarsh Sparrow only a foot from the log that Sandy had described.  I was thrilled to get a life bird, but greedy for more birds, continued on to Savannah NWR.

Savannah NWR is one of my favorite places and I stayed from 9:30 AM until after 3:00 PM.  I “should” have left for home much earlier, but by staying so late my last bird of the trip was a really good one – a White-winged Scoter near the end of the Laurel Hill drive.  A check of eBird records when I got home revealed only one other sighting in Savannah NWR and it was over six years ago.

 

I arrived safely home, very tired but grateful for the wonderful birds that I had seen and especially thankful for my loving family and friends.

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter – Savannah NWR Laurel Hill drive

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