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.


dguzman said...

Oh Beth, I'm so jealous. Will have to migrate to Florida soon! So glad you had a great time there.

Artoholic said...

Such an abundance of birds! I'd be in heaven, not knowing which one to paint first!

Off to have a look through the rest of your very interesting blog.