Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dispatch from Space Coast - Day Four

Great Blue Heron at Viera Wetlands
The last day of the SpaceCoast Bird Festival in Florida arrived quickly. The only festival-related event was a panel discussion with the Bird Brain Trust of Kenn Kaufmann (who, due to laryngitis, was replaced on the panel by Alvaro Jaramillo), David Allen Sibley, Pete Dunne and Michael O'Brien. It was moderated by Kevin Karlson. Big names in birding, a packed auditorium and big expectations. The ID forum offered us the chance to watch experts identify birds and share their thought process. Unfortunately, with so many wonderful slides to view, the presentation quickly ate up the two hours allotted and we did not get through all the photos.

It was interesting to watch the individual criteria each expert uses for identifying birds and see how they reach the same or different conclusions. Sibley and Jaramillo are specific and scientific in their identifications, whereas Dunne is more emotional in interpretations. For instance, instead of giving us specific field marks to identify a reddish egret, Pete Dunne likens the way they move to "linebackers who dropped a tab of crystal meth". Now that is an image I won't soon forget and the next day, when I saw my lifer reddish egret, I couldn't have agreed more. He also compared a red-shouldered hawk's hunched appearance to Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill (or maybe Alfred Hitchcock) on a pole at Viera Wetlands

Garnering an even bigger audience laugh, Pete Dunne tried to explain the difference between short and long-billed dowitchers. Short-bills have blunter and heavier bills and smudgier markings than the long-billed. He described the long-billed as "gentrified" and the short-billed as "shabby". "You wouldn't mind if your son or daughter was going out with a long-billed, but if they brought home a short-billed, you might have to pull them aside for a bit of a talk." Kevin Karlson asked the experts about their favorite birds and remarked that since the peregrine falcon was the symbol of the Cape May Bird Observatory, it must be Dunne's favorite. Dunne replied, "Yes. If I hadn't married Linda...". He does make me giggle.

When some disagreement on the identification of a female duck photo came up, Dunne asked who the female duck was seen "hanging out" with. She was seen with a drake mottled duck. "I am confident that a male mottled duck is more able to discern a female mottled duck than we are, so I'd call it a female mottled and be done with it." Classic birding-by-impression using shape, size, habitat and behavior to narrow down difficult identifications, rather than relying solely on field marks that could vary within one species from bird to bird -that's what I took away from this forum.

Cooperative blue wing teal at Viera Wetlands

After the seminar ended I took a solo trip to the Rich Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, a series of connected ponds at a wastewater treatment facility in Central Brevard county, about an hour south of where I was staying. Besides, everyone at the festival was excited about the rare masked duck that had been at the wetlands for the past three weeks and I wanted to tick this one off on my life list.

The wetlands were my favorite of all my Space Coast trips. Although I went without guides who could have found me more lifers, there is something incredibly satisfying about finding lifers on your own. Driving onto the property, I saw a pair of crested caracaras wheeling above. Good omen. Ring-necked duck (lifer), lesser scaup (lifer), hundreds of coots and moorhens, pied-billed grebes, limpkins, glossy ibis, blue winged teal, egrets, herons, anhingas, wood storks, killdeer and tree swallows were abundant. But without a scope, I was hopelessly looking for a small, cinnamon colored duck with a Zorro mask. I didn't see an abundance of birders gathered in one spot which would have tipped me off to the location of the masked duck, either. As I slowly drove by one pond, a woman with a huge camera excitedly waved me over. All alone, in the middle of a pond full of coots and blue wings, was a tiny (smaller than a ruddy duck) beautifully colored duck with a pronounced black mask on his cheeks, diving repeatedly. How gorgeous. Masked duck. Check.

Driving further down the roads, I scanned the pond-edging reeds hoping for green heron (one of my favorite waterbirds) and perhaps a lifer bittern. I knew I was pushing my luck with a bittern - this secretive species is known for blending in with the vegetation and standing stock still making it difficult to spot movement that would alert a birder to it's presence. But a girl can hope, right?

I saw sparrows, green herons (yay!), egrets, little blue herons and turtles in the reeds. Then I saw what looked like some white feathers caught on a reed. I backed the car up at a painfully slow crawl and there he was - clinging to the reeds - a Least Bittern! Wow. Idid the Life Bird Wiggle from my seat and snapped one picture before he disappeared back into the reeds. Could this day get any better?

My lifer least bittern

A flyover pileated woodpecker capped off the day and I drove back to New Smyrna Beach, sated with lifers, but still missing a reddish egret, one of my target birds for the trip.

On Tuesday, my Aunt Maggie drove me to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where I wanted to get that darn reddish egret before I went back to Pennsylvania. It poured rain for the first two hours of our trip, but we soldiered on and got hooded merganser (lifer!), American avocet (lifer!) - an elegant and beautiful bird - and finally, my lifer reddish egret. Harriers, skimmers, herons, egrets, spoonbills, terns, sandpipers, shovelers, teals, grebes, shrike, limpkin, tree swallows, vultures, hawks, pelicans, osprey, kestrels (by the dozens!), kingfisher, moorhens, coots, phoebe and an alligator rounded out the day. Wow. 3 more lifers with just a short trip to Merritt Island. And while in the gift shop, we got great looks at a male painted bunting, at the feeder, in the pouring rain. Not a lifer, but a nice trip-bird.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dispatch from Space Coast - Day Three

scoping for shorebirds on Disappearing Island

Day Three at the Space Coast Bird & Wildlife Festival held a new concentration for me - shorebirds. Peeps, plovers, willets, sandpipers, gulls, terns, loons, sea ducks - you name it - I'm lost. I needed teaching and I needed it badly.

We started our day in a classroom on the grounds of Brevard County Community College where Adam Kent reviewed the 29 species we are likely to see on Florida coasts in the winter, including my goal birds for the day, Piping Plover and Wilson's Plover. Not to keep you in suspense - I got great looks at both once we were in the field. Adam also provided us with convenient cheatsheets that described each bird. My wrinkled and rain-spotted copy is on the desk next to me and you can be sure I will be referring to it throughout this blog post as well as often in the future!

As a frequent visitor to Barnegat Light, New Jersey, I have seen my share of ruddy turnstones (my favorite shorebird until I fell in love with the Piping Plover) and purple sandpipers, but these were target birds for many in our group.

Piping Plover

Thunderstorms and heavy rain were forecast so we quickly drove to New Smyrna Beach and Smyrna Dunes Park. Originally scheduled for later in the day, our guides decided to take us by pontoon boat first over to Disappearing Island so we wouldn't get stranded there in the rain later. Disappearing Island is a large (acres wide) sandbar in the middle of the Ponce Inlet festooned with hundreds of shorebirds and in this case an additional 35 birders sneaking up on them. Without the distractions of crashing waves and other humans, it was easy to compare a Wilson's Plover (the largest plover with a long bill) to the smiliar looking and much more common Semipalmated Plover. I could not tear my binoculars away from the cutest plover of them all - the Piping Plover. An endangered species, the Piping Plover is often difficult to find - but certainly prevalent here on Disappearing Island. With a stubby bill, paler back and bright orange legs, it was cuddly cute.

After Disappearing Island, it was a boat ride back to Smyrna Dunes Park for a walk along the beach and looks at laughing, herring and ring-billed gulls, greater black-backed gulls, Caspian terns, black skimmers (lifer), sanderlings, more plovers including black-bellied, ruddy turnstones (which have developed a gull-like habit of approaching humans begging for food), pelicans, gannets doing fantastic dives into the ocean, short-billed dowitchers (lifer) and dunlin.

The rain came down heavily around 1pm, so a lot of us decided to cut our losses and trek back to our cars. The rain and the size of the group made for a difficult field learning experience, but any birding trip is a good birding trip! The inside of my car fogged up with condensation as I dried off during the drive back to BCCC campus to kill time before my evening symposium by shopping and taking in the sights at the Exhibit Center - chock full of artists, photographers, nature tours, crafters, wildlife and birding organizations and the always entertaining Raptor Project.

The evening presentation was the esteemed artist and naturalist, David Allen Sibley. He spoke about nature study and how it helps sate our desire to understand and classify our natural world. I certainly understand the need to put everything into little cubby holes and organize it - just ask anyone who has ever lived or worked with me! He explained how he struggled for years to pen his wonderful Sibley Guide to Birds and his newest Sibley Guide to Trees. Sibley is a brilliant, brilliant man with an understated and quiet sense of humor. I enjoyed his anecdote about a friend who once said "there is a fine line between birdwatching and standing around like an idiot." As David said to us, "Can you imagine how he feels about tree-watching?!" Insert chuckles here.

I don't know that tree-watching will be my next hobby, but I have ordered a copy of his guide because I can't help but admire someone who can dedicate massive amounts of time, energy and talent to classifying and structuring the world around us to make it easier for the rest of us.

Day Four (Sunday) of the Festival only held a symposium for me (a real Birding Braintrust) - but I planned a trip by myself to the Viera Wetlands to track down a rare Masked Duck that had been seen there throughout the previous three weeks. All the festival participants were abuzz about it. More about Day Four later.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dispatch from Space Coast - Day Two

Coming back home from Florida was a rude awakening. Got back just in time for 28 inches of snow followed three days later by another 24 inches (expected to fall today). Dealt with broken furnace and two days of bone chilling cold INSIDE the house, lots of snow shoveling, traveling to different accounts for new job at work...well, you get the picture.

anhinga perched on palm tree to dry out

Now that the excuses for not following up quickly with Space Coast blog posts have been laid out for your humble approval, the story continues....

Day two's field trip took us first to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Kissimmee. Bordered by Lake Kissimmee, Lake Jackson and Lake Marion, the WMA proved to be fruitful for life birds for me. Brown headed nuthatch, snail kite (one of my target birds for the trip), whooping cranes (another target bird), barred owl, savannah sparrow and crested caracaras were all seen and/or heard (in the case of the owl) along with 64 other species.

Here we are, all lined up on the side of the road to view the whooping cranes at the Double C-Bar Ranch south of St. Cloud, Florida. The ranch is where the original group of cranes was released in the 1990's (after flying from the Great Lakes - Wisconsin region following ultralight planes) . Naturally occuring flocks of whooping cranes in the southeastern United States disappeared in the 1930's. Florida participated in the relocation of over 280 cranes from 1993-2004 hoping to establish a non-migratory flock. Texas was another successful area where whooping cranes were transplanted, but since one hurricane hitting Port Aransas, TX could potentially wipe out the Texas crane population, Florida became an additional site for crane tranplanting. However, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discontinued the release of whooping cranes into the non-migratory population. Here is the press release explaining the decision. The current non-migratory crane population in Florida is only about 30. There are only 500 of these birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild and the rest in captivity. What an honor to see a handful of them on this trip.

At Lake Jackson, our guide let me use his Kowa scope to try my hand at digiscoping. On the tree across the lake were 4 snail kites, 3 anhingas and one lone red-shouldered hawk (my spark bird!!). Click on the picture for closeup views.

I got great looks at kestrels (almost as common as mourning doves, perched every few feet on the power lines), red-shouldered hawks (I hardly ever see hawks perched when birding, but these reds seemed a bit lazy - always resting, but sharp-eyed), green herons (love me some green herons), and loggerhead shrikes (my bird club, the DVOC, named their World Series of Birding team the Lagerhead Shrikes, so this bird makes me smile - and think of beer).

Day three's trip was a shorebird excursion at New Smyrna Beach. I am pitifully inexperienced at identifying shorebirds, so I was hoping to learn a lot. After a second 12 hour birding day, I was eager to fall into bed and dream of birdies. So I did. More later...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dispatch from Space Coast - Day One cont'd

Day One at Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival continued with a trip to the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area in the upper St. John's River Basin where I collected an amazing 14 life birds. Easy to do when you are as inexperienced a birder as I am, but still darn impressive.

I saw my first Sandhill Crane there (these proved to be quite numerous throughout the trip) as well as Common Moorhen, Limpkin, Purple Gallinule, Glossy and White Ibis, Pied Bill Grebe, Wood Stork, Black Bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Mottled Duck, Roseate Spoonbills and Black Skimmers. We also saw a Purple Swamp Hen, which is not considered countable by the ABA (they say it is an established exotic from Eurasia), but I put it on my list. It was clearly a different bird than the Gallinule as the face mask was deep red as opposed to the pale blue of the Gallinule and the bill was solid red as opposed to the Gallinule's yellow-tipped red.


The total species count for me for Day One was 52 with 18 being life birds. This day put my life list over 200 for the first time - a feat I had hoped to accomplish in 2009. Bird #200 was the Florida Scrub Jay and how could it be more perfect than to have it be the bird most associated with Florida?

The birders on my first field trip assisted me in finding as many life birds as possible. After all, birders are amazingly generous people. My name tag was often hidden by my binoculars or my vest, so most people on the trip took to calling me Pennsylvania once they found out where I lived. All day I heard the call of "Hey Pennsylvania, over here! I've got a limpkin in the scope for you!" or "Hey Pennsylvania, do you need a wood stork? I got one - come quick!". The entire bus broke into applause when we did the checklist at the end of the day and I discovered that I had the most lifers of anyone by at least ten. I am grateful for the leadership of David Simpson and Jeff Gordon, but I was touched by the generosity of my fellow birders. To all those birding compatriots - thanks for helping.

The amazing adventure of Day Two tomorrow. Another 6 lifers...