Archive for April, 2010

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Florida casualties

April 27, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

My Florida trip wasn’t all sun, sand, and Shiny Cowbirds. I did actually have some losses and damage. Here’s a quick summary.

1) Sunglasses. Unconfirmed, but probably went overboard on the trip back from Dry Tortugas last Friday. One minute I had them inside the cabin of the catamaran, the next, I was outside in very blustery winds and they were gone. Probably being submerged by sand at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico now. Damn.

2) SLR Camera lens cap. Could have been somewhere in the rental car or left in the Florida City hotel room. I looked both places repeatedly but never found it. Damn again.

3) Head pillow. Definitely left in the Florida City hotel room. I brought it mostly to help pack my enormous checked bag, to secure the contents inside, which included my heavy tripod. I left it on the unmade bed when I departed, which explains how I overlooked it so easily.

4) Spotting Scope! Actually, I didn’t lose it, but I thought I almost did at Dry Tortugas. I was observing the Sooty Tern breeding colony from atop the Fort wall, when I got distracted by a pair of Indigo Buntings that landed right near my feet. I began to take pictures, but then a gust of wind picked up and nearly blew my entire scope/tripod apparatus off the Fort wall. You can imagine how my heart sank, and many expletives immediately followed. Fortunately it fell only about 7 feet and only suffered slight dents to 2 of the tripod legs. When visiting my Dad in Avon Park, his neighbor turns out to be a skilled metal worker and even managed to smooth out the dents so I could collapse the legs of the tripod back to normal again. I definitely caught a break there.

5) Lost an important button on my shorts. As long as I wear a belt it’s OK, but it does pretty much rule them out for wearing to the airport. If I have to take my belt off going through security, it might cause a ruckus.

That pretty much covers it.

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Florida Days 3 and 4

April 25, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

The Tern breeding colony on Hospital Key, Dry Tortugas, Florida

I didn’t have time to write anything for Day 3 when I got home. I was so exhausted all I could muster was a status update basically pleading for being allowed to go right to bed. That was necessary since I wanted to get up early the next morning again, although certainly not quite as early. See, I told you that I go wall-to-wall on these Florida birding outings…

Anyway, it’s too bad I wasn’t able to say anything sooner, since I was totally stoked after getting back from my Tortugas trip. It was fan-TASTIC. For all the trouble I went to, to make this ridiculous day trip happen, it was definitely worth it. I set the alarm for a little past 3 am Friday, and was out the door by ten past four. It’s 128 miles driving from Florida City to Key West, and although there was little to no traffic, it still takes 2 1/2 hours. If you’ve ever been down that way you’ll understand. I rode the “Yankee Freedom” catamaran from Key West harbor along with about 140 other people and the ride was about another 2 hours. I’d say that there were about 30 other birders on the boat, the rest being picnickers and snorkelers. Weather was fabulous with light winds and 78 degrees. You don’t see a whole lot of sea life on this trip, but you do see some, and we did see a fair number of flying fish as well as a couple surfacing sea turtles and dolphins. We also saw a few distant Brown Boobies.

We arrived at Dry Tortugas at 10:20am or so, and had a little over 4 hours to wander around. I got right to birding, and it was amazing. I mean AMAZING. It wasn’t even any kind of epic fallout day or anything, but I had never seen anything like it. First off, before you even arrive you can see the cloud of seabirds flying over the neighboring key that serves as their breeding colony. These are about 40,000 Sooty Terns, 6000 Brown Noddies, and maybe 2000 Magnificent Frigatebirds. So that was impressive. On the island itself are a few very small groves of West Indian hardwood trees, both inside and outside the fort that is the main attraction at Dry Tortugas for most non-birding visitors. These small groves were “dripping” with migrant landbirds. I’ve heard this expression “trees dripping with warblers” before, and wondered if that was just an exaggeration, and I now know that it is not. Again, my jaw was on the ground, as I wandered about and was seeing multiple warblers and other passerines moving around every tree every moment. You had to pick out which bird you wanted to look at. In about 20 minutes I had seen a dozen warbler species, and by the end of the outing I had even seen a new life bird, a SWAINSON’S WARBLER.

There were even raptors on the island, which to me is astounding – Peregrine Falcon and Merlin were moving around, and a few people caught a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl (although I missed it). All this on what is just a glorified sandbar with a few trees on it 70 miles from Key West and hundreds of miles from anyplace else that these birds could possibly survive on. In that way Tortugas is not only a birders delight but being there is a delight for the mind and the imagination.

And the pictures – holy shit did I get some kick-ass pictures. Did I mention the vireos? I have photos of Red-eyed, Blue-throated, and Black-whiskered Vireos. I have got a shot that has both Red-eyed and Black-whiskered in the *same frame*. I can’t wait to show these images. I even got 2 *killer* shots of the Swainson’s Warbler. Did I mention that I saw a freakin’ SWAINSON’S WARBLER? Oh, and I also got excellent photos of Indigo and Painted Buntings too. Forgot to mention that. I don’t usually characterize my own pictures so glowingly, but that’s how jazzed I am.

Anyway, we got back to Key West around 5:30, and I took an hour to bird Fort Zachary Taylor state park for any other interesting migrants. Didn’t see anything truly rare (like, say, a Loggerhead Kingbird or Yellow-faced Grassquit, both of which were seen there last year), but it’s still pretty cool when a casual 45 minute walk produces Gray Kingbird, Blue Grosbeak, another Painted Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and Ovenbird. At least it’s cool for a Colorado birder like me.

I tried for Antillean Nighthawk at the Marathon airport on Pigeon Key, but no luck. They’re supposed to be back now but apparently they’re a bit late. Oh well. I got back to the hotel after 10pm, and retired quickly.

For Day 4 (yesterday) I slept in til 5:30 the next morning, packed, and headed 20 miles back south again to Key Largo, this time for just one more bird, the resident Mangrove Cuckoo. There is some outstanding Mangrove Cuckoo habitat on Key Largo, arguably the best in all of south Florida, but good luck finding this bird. I looked for about 3 hours, played recordings (judiciously of course), but not a peep. I came across several Prairie Warblers and even a pair of migrating Bobolinks, but no cuckoos. I don’t feel too bad though, because this bird is legendary for being very difficult to find. I met a birder while there who was from Philadelphia, and on his 5th attempt of finding this bird. He was like me, armed with recordings and a camera and eager to look, but no dice. I read a report from a truly dedicated birder who has tried off and on over *30 years* to find a Mangrove Cuckoo, and still hasn’t succeeded. But the birds are definitely there, and are reported by lucky people every year. So I have a reason for heading back to South Florida again in the future.

I drove up to Avon Park/Sebring after that and am now with my Dad. We’re going to a Rays baseball game in St. Pete today, which should be great fun. I’ll be leaving the binos at home though, since the game is indoors. My understanding is that the Tropicana Dome is one of, if not THE ugliest ball park in the league, so now I’ll see for myself if that’s true.

And tomorrow I’m going birding with my old Raptor Center friend Angela Johnson, who’s going to take me onto the Air Force Bombing Range where she works and look for breeding brids there. Should be a ‘blast’!

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Florida Day 2

April 22, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

The hotel internet connection is a bit cagey tonight, so I’m typing this fast and trying to summarize as much as possible.

It was a terrific birding day today, and it started when I woke up at 4am. I spent most of the day in the Everglades, and the park didn’t disappoint. Turns out this week is “free” week at all National Parks, so get thee to a National Park before the 25th if you want to take advantage of this opportunity. Anyway, Everglades was terrific, and esepcially the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm was just phenomenal today – lots of great species seen and heard, including White and Glossy Ibises, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, American and Least Bitterns (I even have photos of the Least – I’ll post them later), Prothonotary Warbler, Barred Owl, and the personal highlight, Smooth-billed Ani! The birdwatching was just astounding and great fun, as the birds there seem to love mugging for the camera.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me were the Green Herons though. They were definitely in a courtin’ mood, and were calling and displaying and were more ostentatious than I ever imagined they could be. They flew right up to me a couple times and called and preened, and I have some killer shots to show this later. I was just stunned. What a great Earth Day, to see these ordinarily shy and retiring animals strut their stuff so loud and proud, as if to remind everyone what an amazing gift life on this planet is.

I did a fair amount of driving to and fro between parts of the park, and did take the mother of all power naps this afternoon to recover. I spent 5 minutes after waking up from it, trying to remember where I was and what time of year it was. Or is. In any case, I was reminded how much Everglades stands out for me. It feels so primeval. Sure, rationally speaking every national park is primeval, but Everglades really touches on something that, say, Rocky Mountain lacks. It feels vaguely familiar, like my ancestors came from a place like that.

OK, I think I need to retire now. Oh yes. Tomorrow is Tortugas. I’m up again at 4am and driving to Key West, then getting on a boat for a 2.5 hour trip to the place. I’m hoping to see some tern breeding colonies, and who knows what else. Should be fun. I’ll let you know how it went.

-E-

Everglades sunset

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Florida Day 1

April 21, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

My Dad lives in Florida. He and his wife Judy live in a retirement community in between Avon Park and Sebring, which is about 90 miles south of Orlando. I try to visit him every year, either in the spring or fall, and when I do visit, I try to shoehorn a birding trip into it, usually in a 3 day span before I drop in. Although Florida isn’t a place I myself would ever want to move to, I always have a good time visiting, and manage to see many parts of the state I otherwise might not. I’ve also managed to run up a list of well over 200 species, just by doing these short but intense outings.

I’m back in Florida today, and this is the first time I’ve done this trip since I joined Facebook. I’m going to try to document my visit, so you can keep up with what I’m doing while I’m doing. It’s an experiment though, so bear in that mind. It might just fail. It could be a very uneven and/or boring set of notes. It can be hard to keep a good record of what happened in a day, since I tend to go wall-to-wall. For example, I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. I stayed up all night, mostly because I needed all that time to pack and prepare for this trip. Believe me, I wanted to take a nap, and sometime around 2:30 this morning I almost gave in.

Anyway, here’s what I’m doing. This time around I’m trying to see or hear some south Florida specialties that I’ve missed on previous visits. I’ve got a list of about 10 or species that I hope to get, as well as others which I have already seen but really want photos of. Today, I made a point to check out a Red-footed Booby that has been hanging around a seabird rehab clinic for most of the past 4 months or so. It didn’t take long to find him.

Red-footed Booby, Pelican Harbor rehab center, Miami

After that I headed toward downtown and on to Key Biscayne, to visit Bill Baggs State Park, in the hopes of coming across a La Sagra’s Flycatcher that has been hanging around there since February. This flycatcher is a Caribbean rarity that only occasionally shows up in south Florida, and I was afraid that my attempt to see it would come just a few days too late. It hadn’t been reported in over a week, and sure enough I was unable to find it. However, in the couple hours I was there I did see 10 species of warblers. After this long cold winter I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see so many.

Prairie Warbler
American Redstart
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Northern Parula
Cape May Warbler (only the 2nd time I’ve ever seen one)
Northern Waterthrush
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

There were also Eastern Towhees, Northern Cardinals, Barn Swallows, Royal Terns, and a single White Ibis cavorting about. I have pictures of some of these birds, but I now realize it would take too long for me to post them in this note. I’ll get a gallery of them up when I have a bit more time to process them.

Other species I saw today which gladdened me immensely were Black Vulture, Fish Crow, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, a Merlin, and even the Boat-tailed Grackle.

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to Everglades National Park. I’m specifically in search of Black Rail, Seaside Sparrow (Cape Sable form), Barred Owl, Smooth-billed Ani, and Shiny Cowbird. If I have time and inclination in the afternoon, I’ll drive back up to southern Miami and look for Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Spot-breasted Orioles. In the evening I’m going to go back into the park and look for Chuck-will’s-widows at dusk.

Friday I’m going to Key West and doing a Dry Tortugas day trip. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow night.

Saturday I’m going to make a concerted effort at long last to find a Mangrove Cuckoo.

But before any of that can happen, I really really need to get some sleep. Good night.