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Posts Tagged ‘Loggerhead Shrike’

On Thursday morning, I got “permission” from a local Montana birder to try Bannack Bench Road again when I called for advice.  “The roads dry quickly and the storms don’t usually come until late afternoon.”  So, I hoped to hit a sweet spot in the middle of the day.  The beginning of the road was great, but it soon starting getting sticky.  But, I heard birdsong, so I just pulled over and shut the engine.  I continued to hear the bird and then I found him at the top of a distant bush with his head thrown back in full song.  I hoped that this was a Gray Flycatcher, so I made a couple of quick voice recordings and tried to get a photo, but my camera wouldn’t focus.

Before had time to play with camera settings, a local rancher came by and stopped to see if I was OK.  He said I should be OK for another mile or so, but that I should turn around at the next cattle guard.  Then we talked for a while, about how he loved Montana, how he is trying to save the Greater Sage-Grouse on the land he uses, the local roads.  I showed him an illustration of a Prairie Falcon and he was sure they were “just over the ridge there.”  But, of course, that was an inaccessible location for me.  I can’t regret the 20 minutes or so we talked, but after he left, I could not re-find my singing bird.  Also, storm clouds gathered while we were talking and he left me with instructions to turn around right then.  If I got stuck he would have helped me, but I would have been embarrassed by my foolishness.  The rancher told stories of people calling for a tow truck and being asked if they had a good book.  At least one person was stuck for over 24 hours.  Friends, you may have worried about people, bears, or rattlesnakes, but the real danger out here is the roads.

I reluctantly left Bannack and headed to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, where I arrived mid-afternoon.  The park is beautiful and I wish that I’d had the time and energy to hike some of the trails or take the tour of the caverns.  I explored just a little of the park before it started raining.  I headed to Bozeman for the night.

It was raining when I woke up yesterday morning and I half-way expected a call from Ron Farmer cancelling our birding.  But, Ron picked me up as planned and we spent several hours birding from the car.  Ron took me to his reliable Sage Thrasher spot and we did see one bird.  The bird was wet and I didn’t really get a great look, but it was a lifer.  We spent the rest of our time looking for Prairie Falcons to no avail.

Ron dropped me back at my hotel and I took a nap.  When I awoke, the skies looked a little less rainy, so I headed back to the spots that Ron had showed me that morning.  After watching for Prairie Falcons for over two hours (mostly in the rain), I decided to go look for the thrashers again.  I drove up and back the road in intermittent rain with just one brief sighting.  I started for a second round and immediately saw this Sage Thrasher perched on a fence post in a brief moment of sun.

Sage Thrasher

Thrilled that I finally had a photo, I headed back to my hotel and started thinking about today.  I had planned to drive the Beartooth Highway and look for Black Rosy-Finches at the pass, about 10,000 feet of elevation.  I expected them to be right by the road.  But, I started thinking about whether or not I would be comfortable driving the road and googled “Is driving the Beartooth Highway scary”?  Well, the answer is that yes, for me, it would be as I am terrified of cliff edges.  I have no idea why I did not think about the narrow mountain road with steep ascents and decents and hairpin turns before the trip.  I fell asleep with no plan for today.

This morning, I decided that I would check Bear Canyon Road in the Pryor Mountains for Sagebrush Sparrows.  It took a while to drive from Bozeman, so I started down the road at 12:30 PM.  I did not find the sparrows, but I did receive confirmation from an expert that my recording from Thursday was indeed a Gray Flycatcher, another life bird.  Bear Canyon Road was another of those isolated spots that I love and I enjoyed it.  Here are a few images from this afternoon.

Common Raven on nest

A bird that reminded me of the Southeast US.

Loggerhead Shrike

A little sparrow that I believe is a Brewer’s Sparrow, or maybe it’s a Clay-colored Sparrow.  Birder friends, can any of you identify this bird for me?  (Update: the sparrow has been confirmed as a Brewer’s.)

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

A view of the Pryor Mountains. Yes, that is snow on the peaks.

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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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