Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dispatch from Space Coast - Day One

Sunrise at the St. Sebastian River Buffer Preserve

Driving in the chilly 40 degree morning at the ungodly hour of 3:30am to get to the bus zone for my first field trip at the Space Coast Bird and Wildlife Festival, I couldn't help but think how crazy birders are for putting up with such early morning calls. However, if it will take the bus an hour to get to the site where the elusive red-cockaded woodpecker will briefly appear at the beginning of his day, you bite the bullet and make the sacrifice.

It turned out to be no sacrifice at all and well worth the effort. The bus was 40 minutes late (damn, I could have slept some more!) but we all grabbed some shuteye on the trip out to the St. Sebastian River Buffer Preserve where 8 clusters (family units) of red cockadeds are established. The staff at the Preserve have translocated another 5 pairs hoping that when breeding season comes around in March and April, that they will stay and increase the number of clusters to 13.

An active nesting cavity tree (note the spray painted circle)

White spray-painted circles mark the trees where active nesting cavities are. Red cockadeds singly inhabit a cavity and they are meticulous house builders and housekeepers. The woodpeckers instinctively know which live pine trees are infected with a disease that makes the wood softer and easier to drill into. However, the tree must reach an average age of 70-80 years before the disease takes hold, so clearcutting and logging have destroyed important habitat that is taking decades to reforest. Clutches of eggs are laid in the male's cavity while both parents as well as "helper" birds - usually males from previous clutches - all participate in feeding. It truly takes a village to raise red cockadeds. The females tend to leave the cluster and make a love connection with other males to start new clusters. The woodpeckers drill holes all around the nest cavity to make the resin run and deter predator rat snakes. Active management in the form of chick banding and the very successful human-built nest cavities as well as translocation and habitat preservation (with
controlled burns) have helped rebuild the population slightly.
Jeff Gordon searching for red cockaded woodpeckers

After trudging through knee-high saw palemettos and grass coated with dew, we came to a trio of active cavity trees and waited. As the sun rose over the horizon, two red cockadeds came out of their cavities to greet the morning and us. What awesome views of such a difficult-to-find bird - found in only 11 states and with only an estimated 6,100 clusters.

Jeff Gordon, tour guide extraordinaire, called in a Bachman's sparrow (another life bird for me), but I couldn't get good enough looks at this tiny skulking bird to count it. We returned to the trucks (we were sitting on hay bales in the back of several pickup trucks) and right by the truck was a Bachman's perched high on a shrub singing his heart out. Great looks in Jeff's scope gave me a view of a life bird that is certainly hard to come by.

Traveling by birder-hayride to another part of the Preserve, we got great looks at Florida scrub jays - funny, engaging and vocal birds. Socially gregarious and breeding in family groups, the scrub jay is the more important species to the St. Sebastian River Buffer Preserve. The Preserve hosts 70-80 scrubjays (in 39 family groups) but has room for up to 125. The Preserve is the fourth largest collection of scrubjays in the state. Disappearing habitat is responsible for their decline.

We left the St. Sebastian River Buffer Preserve to head over to the Marsh Landing Restaurant for brunch. Fortified with corned beef hash and eggs as well as four life birds, I was ready for the next leg of the trip - the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area. There I collected an additional 14 life birds!!! More on that tomorrow.

Today's birds from the St. Sebastian Preserve (life birds are in bold):

Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Pine Warbler
Great Egret

Bachman's Sparrow

Eastern Towhee

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

American Kestrel

Eastern Phoebe

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Loggerhead Shrike

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Florida Scrub Jay

Eastern Meadowlark

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Long Drive, Beautiful Sunshine

Aunt Maggie's House - ain't it gorgeous?!

Palm trees instead of hedges outside the window. I'm not in Pennsylvania anymore!

Aunt Maggie must be a bird lover. Check out the statuary!

After a long drive (10 hours the first day and 7 hours the second day), I arrived in Florida for the Space Coast Bird and Wildlife Festival sponsored by the Brevard Nature Alliance. Driving the 30 miles from my aunt's house in New Smyrna Beach to Titusville to pick up my registration materials and explore the campus of the the Brevard County Community College from where the field trips will be staged, I was enjoying the 65 degree weather, bright blue skies and even brighter sun when I realized how sun-starved I was. Now I know why people travel south for the winter. I used to snicker at the "snowbirds", but as my mood considerably lightened and the problems of the past few months drifted away in the breeze, I became a convert. Sunshine, blue skies and birds in January - the cure for all ills. More to come on the Space Coast Festival-my first field trip begins tomorrow at 4:30am and one of the trip leaders is Jeff Gordon. I am anticipating lots of life birds and sunshine.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blackwater Wildlife Refuge Eagle Cam

photo courtesy of Blackwater Wildlife Refuge website

It's that time of year again - the eagle couple on the cam-monitored nest at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Maryland have successfully laid their first egg. An experienced couple who have returned to this nest over several years, they are expected to lay at least one more egg if not two more. I am addicted to this cam feed and even made a trip to Blackwater a few years ago to see the eagles (although this couple are not viewable since the Refuge will not release the location of the nest in order to protect the eagles from harrassment from too many visitors). The antics of the eaglets are too cute for words.

Blackwater is a beautiful refuge with plenty of hiking trails and comfortable driving trails for bird viewing and over 170 eagles in their recent census. Put it on your must-see list. And check out the Eagle Cam and the Osprey Cam (ospreys are expected to return to the refuge for breeding in March).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Birding Barnegat Light

purple sandpipers lined up on the jetty to grab some shuteye (please excuse the poor quality of the pictures - I took them with my Blackberry since I forgot to bring my camera!)

I made my annual pilgrimage to Barnegat Light, New Jersey (at the northern tip of Long Beach Island) this past Saturday with my good friend, Kathy. Kathy and I have shared a summer rental in Barnegat Light for almost twenty years and I fell in love with this part of the Jersey Shore a long time ago. But when I started birding I realized that winters in LBI bring all sorts of feathered delights. The rocky shores and relative lack of humans makes it a perfect place for over-wintering sea ducks and other birds. So I have been making this trek in the bitter cold to stand on the jetty and delight in the birds for the last 4 years. I can usually con one or two of my non-birding friends, like Kathy, into accompanying me since a trip to LBI always includes a stop for lunch at the famous Mustache Bill's Diner.

With unseasonably warm temperatures hovering around 46 degrees and bright cloudless skies, the day was perfect for birding. We weren't the only ones who felt that way since the Lighthouse Park parking lot was jam packed with assorted birders and their scopes, cameras and binoculars. In the years I have been making this annual trek, I have never before seen so many birders on the jetty.

When the weather is not so good, the boulders that comprise the 1/2 mile long jetty can be slick and treacherous, but this time, the footing was stable. Alas, my poor friend, trying to take a picture of the purple sandpipers with her iPhone dropped the phone between the boulders and into the ocean. It was the only down part of the day, however.

Our first birds were common loon, common merganser and red-breasted merganser as well as flocks of American robins and European starlings flying over. We also saw brants, surf scoters, common eiders, the famed Harlequin ducks (the stunning bird that is the reason for my annual trip), purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, black-bellied plovers, swamp sparrows, turkey vultures, sharp-shinned hawk, Northern harrier and song sparrows. We saw dozens of pintail ducks which in my humble opinion, run a close second to Harlequin ducks in terms of sheer beauty. Assorted gulls including greater black-backed gulls rounded out the day.

With windswept hair and wind-burned cheeks, we trekked back on the jetty and made our way to Mustache Bills for fortification. On our way back down the jetty, I got a call from Laura (Somewhere in New Jersey) who was also coming to look at the winter birds with her friend, Jay, from BirdJam. Unfortunately, schedules being what they are, we only had time for a quick conversation in the parking lot, but it was great to see them.

All in all, a great winter birding day.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Year in Birds (and other stuff)

It seems the calendar has tipped over to another year. Gratefully (2009 was not the best of years - politically, economically, etc), I look back on my year in birds and other things.

2009 was the year I met all my blog friends (after a quick first meeting in Cape May, NJ in October, 2008) at New River Bird Festival in West Virginia. What a blast (traveling with a 40 pound cement chicken mascot was a strange part of this trip for sure). Forever-friends I will hold close in my heart for the rest of my life. You all know who you are....miss you and can't wait to see you again this year.

This was the year of lifers. My pitiful little life list grew by 30 in 2009 including my favorites - bobolink, chestnut-sided warbler, Swainson's thrush, woodcock and worm-eating warbler. The last lifer of 2009 was a veery in July. I am grateful for the help I had getting all those important lifers (yes, I mean you, Paco). It was a life experience this year at New River when I held a wild bird for banding. What a memory.

It was the year of the blog. I started this modest adventure in 2009 and made over 55 posts (more than one per week!). What started as a lark to keep Susan from bugging me became a real part of my life that I don't want to give up - although I would like it to be better.

In 2009 I tried my hand at leading bird trips (at least for birders under age 12!). Had a blast and can't wait to do it again.

And it was the year that my yard birds threatened to sue me thanks to the advice from my lawyer friend, Andy. To make up for dissing my yard birds, I did assist in rescuing 11 baby mallards at work.

I was a bird landlord and I traveled to the Philadelphia Zoo to check out more exotic birds I can't find in Pennsylvania.

On a personal note, my career is going through some transition (could be good, could be bad) but my health is much improved after bariatric surgery, so while I look forward to being healthy enough for more extensive birding, work could put a wrench in the plans for trips to West Virginia, New England/ Canada, Florida and Texas in 2010.

The first bird trip of 2010 will be The Space Coast Bird Festival in Titusville, Florida at the end of this month and I can't wait. I know that putting things in writing gives dreams and ideas more meaning and power. So here are my bird resolutions for 2010:

1.) Attend New River Festival again in West Virginia (April 2009)

2.) Go birding with Uncle Jim (mentor extraordinaire) on the New England/ Canada cruise we are taking in July to celebrate my mom's 70th birthday. Bird, don't just laze by the pool on the ship!

3.) Buy that new pair of binoculars I have been saving for (Nikon Premier series).

4.) On the family trip to Florida for Easter, get to Merritt Island for some serious birding.

5.) Visit the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for South American bird specialties.

6.) Buy a decent camera to spruce up the blog (although I will never be the photographer that Mary is - she rocks!).

In the next two weeks, I will make my annual pilgrimage to Long Beach Island, NJ to see Harlequin ducks, ruddy turnstones, purple sandpipers and dunlins that make Barnegat Light their home every year. Target lifer this year is a snow bunting- I am not leaving without one, even if I freeze my newly slimmed down butt off!

To all my birding and non-birding friends, have a great New Year full of health, love and laughter.