If you can’t be with the birds you love, honey, love the birds you’re with

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

The 12th Annual June Challenge begins on Monday. The June Challenge, for those new to Alachua County birding, is a friendly competition in which individual contestants try to see as many species of birds in Alachua County as possible from June 1st to June 30th. Participation has grown considerably since the first Challenge in 2004 – last year 48 Alachua County birders submitted lists! But it hasn’t just grown locally: 113 other birders from 39 other counties, mainly in Florida but including counties in Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, plus Abaco, Bahamas, and Hyderabad, India (both submitted by vacationing Florida birders), participated last year.

The ultimate purpose of the Challenge is to inspire birders to keep going through the heat of June – to have fun, to get out in the fresh air and sunshine and to see some beautiful birds – but there are other reasons to do it. In addition to the 100 or so breeding birds we expect here, very late spring migrants and very early fall migrants have been found in June, as have coastal strays like Sandwich Tern and Willet and unexpected wanderers like Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Reddish Egret, and Snail Kite. So there are discoveries to make – and not all of them are birds; June mornings can be beautiful and lively, full of butterflies and wildflowers, and much milder in temperature than you’d expect.

As with all contests, there are rules:
1. All birds must be seen within the boundaries of Alachua County between June 1st and June 30th. (You non-Alachua birders are challenged to participate within your own counties.)
2. Each bird on your list must have been seen, not merely heard.
3. The question of whether this bird or that bird is “countable” toward your total has created some confusion. Any free-flying bird is countable for the purposes of the Challenge, but keep track of how many ABA-countable (“ABA” is American Birding Association, and here’s the list of countable species) and non-countable species are on your list. Report them in this format: Total number of species seen followed by parentheses containing (number that are ABA countable / number that are not), e.g., 115 (112 / 3). The Black Swans at the Duck Pond, for instance, would be on the “uncountable” part of your list. If you have any questions about a specific bird, ask me.
4. You’re competing with other Alachua County birders to see who can amass the longest individual list – BUT send me an email if you find something good so that I can alert the other contestants and they can go out and look for it. It is, after all, a friendly competition.
5. EMAIL YOUR LIST TO BOB CARROLL AT gatorbob23@yahoo.com BY MIDNIGHT ON TUESDAY, JUNE 30TH. There will be a June Challenge party at TJC creator Becky Enneis’s house in Alachua on July 1st at 6:30 p.m., at which a remarkably handsome trophy and other prizes will be given out.

To help you keep track of your sightings, I’ve attached an automatic checklist that Phil Laipis created a couple of years ago. Type in the date you saw each species in the row headed “First Seen,” using the format “6/1″ for June 1st, “6/2″ for June 2nd, etc., and the checklist will automatically add everything up for you (you can also use “1” or “x”). If you don’t have Excel, or you prefer keeping track on a paper copy, we’ve got some card-stock trifold checklists that you can use. Just send me your mailing address and I’ll drop one in the mailbox for you.

You can do the Challenge on your own, of course, but I’ll be at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve at 6:15 a.m. on Monday to jump start it with Common Nighthawk and Bachman’s Sparrow, and you’re welcome to join me, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced birder. From Longleaf we’ll go to Newnans Lake and then La Chua ($4 admission for La Chua). You should be home by lunchtime with 40-50 species on that checklist! I don’t know what the trail is like at Longleaf – it might be perfectly dry – but bring rubber boots if you have them, or wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Directions to Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve: From Gainesville, take State Road 20 (Hawthorne Road) east. Measuring from Waldo Road, at 4.4 miles you’ll pass Powers Park, and shortly thereafter you’ll cross the bridge over Prairie Creek. Three and a half miles after that, turn right onto County Road 325 and proceed 2.3 miles to the Longleaf parking lot.

Anyway, if you win, you get The June Challenge trophy, two and a half feet tall and lovingly crafted from the finest wood-like material. Your name and your accomplishment will be engraved in the purest imitation gold and affixed to the trophy, a memorial that will last throughout all eternity, or until someone drops it onto a hard surface. You keep the trophy at your house for a year, contemplating the evidence of your great superiority to all other birders, and then the following June you either win again or you sadly pass the trophy on to the next June Challenge champion and sink back into the common mass of birderdom.

Hints for new Challengers: Bird as much as you can during the first few days and last few days of the month, to get late spring and early fall migrants. Check the big lakes repeatedly (especially Newnans and Lochloosa) for coastal strays like gulls, terns, and pelicans. Check your email inbox to learn what other people are seeing and for tips on where to go. I apologize in advance for the many birding reports you’ll get in early June…

Please join us for The 12th Annual June Challenge. Good luck to all!

Baird’s Sandpiper NO

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

There was quite a congregation at Sweetwater Wetlands Park after the report of the Baird’s Sandpiper went out – I’ve posted a picture of the “twitch” here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/17896125790/in/dateposted-public/ – and we spent a lot of time looking at the bird through our scopes, zooming in, zooming out, conferring with each other. We all agreed it appeared to be long-winged, but Baird’s has a very thin, straight bill and the bill on this bird looked stouter than we’d expect, more like a Semipalmated’s. However there were four Semipalmateds hanging around in a flock, and this bird was not associating with them. The field marks were all uncertain, anyway: we were viewing the bird across the southern “moat” at a distance of a couple of hundred feet, too far to be sure of anything. But then, as we watched, an Osprey cruised over the bird at a height of only six feet or so, and it took off to the west, then made a U-turn, came back in our direction along our side of the moat, and set down on the mud just fifty feet away. At this distance all the details we couldn’t see across the moat were clear, and it became obvious that the tips of the primaries were even with the tip of the tail rather than extending beyond it. So it was a Semipalmated Sandpiper and not a Baird’s. I’ve noted the Semipalmated’s relatively long-winged structure before: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30736692@N00/3026633716/in/album-72157594281975202/

So what can we learn from this? Nothing, I hope! This is the way it’s supposed to work! If you think you have a rare bird, let people know! It’s much better to retract an ID later than to delay reporting it until you’re 100% sure and let a good bird get away.

Other sightings at SWP this morning included one or two Spotted Sandpipers, a Purple Gallinule sitting on a nest (with chicks, I was told), and four Black-necked Stilts sitting on nests. John Martin got a photo of one of the nesting stilts on the 21st: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thermalin/17862765378/

Still a few migrants moving through. Jerry Krummrich in Lake City and Andy Kratter in SE Gainesville both had American Redstarts in their yards yesterday.

Baird’s Sandpiper at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

Andy Kratter just called (9:07 a.m.) to report a Baird’s Sandpiper at Sweetwater Wetland Park. As you enter the park, go left toward the red metal bridge that spans the grassy channel between Cells 1 and 2. The bird is at the far end of the channel, opposite the bridge. This is the second Alachua County record, and the first in spring. The first county record was an immature bird seen almost ten years ago, on 12 September 2005 at the Dollar General pond in Alachua: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30736692@N00/241867000/in/album-72157594281975202/ Keep in mind that this one won’t look like that, since it’s an adult. It will look more like this: http://www.larkwire.com/static/content/images/ipad/WBNA1/BairdsSandpiper.jpg

Least Terns at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

Geoff Parks notified me just before noon: “There were two Least Terns foraging in the sheetflow distribution channel at the Sweetwater Wetlands Park this morning. We watched them work their way back and forth for five minutes or so; I’m not sure if they stuck around or moved on.” I’m driving over to check it out as soon as I send this. Least Terns are rarely seen in Alachua County, and the origin of those that do turn up here is uncertain. For at least two or three years there’s been a nesting colony on the roof of the high school at Keystone Heights, but I can’t see why those birds would forage so far from their nests – Lake Santa Fe is much closer, and there are several smaller bodies of water in the Keystone Heights area. Possibly there’s another nesting colony nearby.

I was at Sweetwater Wetlands Park yesterday morning. Not many migrants are left, with the exception of “wintering” American Coots, which are plentiful. But a couple of birders saw a pair of Blue-winged Teal, and I saw three Bobolinks (others reported flocks) and five or six Spotted Sandpipers. Otherwise it was all resident species, including easy-to-see Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules, and one adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron hanging around the mouth of Sweetwater Branch, where it empties into the wetland. Remember that the Park will be open on Memorial Day.

Hope you’re all polishing up your binocular lenses in preparation for The June Challenge. It begins one week from tomorrow, and I’ll lead the usual kickoff field trip beginning at 6:15 a.m. at the Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve parking lot.

Late migrants

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

Hey, I’m still blogging at the Gainesville Sun, if you wondered: http://fieldguide.blogs.gainesville.com/276/the-fuse/

Birders may be especially interested in this week’s Alachua Audubon program meeting. Miami birding guide Carlos Sanchez will give a presentation on the exotic birds of South Florida – Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, Common Myna, Hill Myna, and many, many parrots and parakeets, what they are and where to see them. Here’s a photo and brief biographical sketch of Carlos from the “10,000 Birds” blog, where Carlos is one of the regular contributors. You can chat with him during the social (half-) hour that begins at 6:30. His talk will begin at 7:00. Again, that’s the Millhopper Branch Library, 3145 NW 43rd Street, on the evening of Thursday, May 21st. We’re only inviting the cool kids this time – so if you don’t show up, it will be a public confession that you’re not with it. Don’t do that to yourself, man.

Migration has slowed down, but it won’t be completely over till early June. Trina Anderson saw a lingering Blue-winged Teal at Chapmans Pond on the 19th. Becky Enneis had a late Northern Waterthrush in her Alachua back yard on the 18th. A big crowd turned out for the Alachua Audubon field trip to Sweetwater Wetland Park on the 17th, and several of them reported migrants: Spotted Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, and Bobolinks, as well two dawdling winter birds, a Belted Kingfisher and several dozen American Coots. Also seen there was a Roseate Spoonbill, possibly the same one reported off the La Chua observation platform by Coleman Sheehy on the 15th.

On the 10th Chris Janus got a nice photo of a pair of Limpkins with three half-grown chicks at Sweetwater Wetland Park (that’s a Lesser Yellowlegs down front): https://www.flickr.com/photos/chris_f8/17480842826/

On the 16th I did a bird-survey-by-boat at three islands off Cedar Key. Many of the birds that had been nesting at Seahorse Key seem to be nesting at Snake Key now. We saw three breeding-plumage Roseate Spoonbills and a Reddish Egret there. Magnificent Frigatebirds had also moved their roost over to Snake, but we saw only about 20. Shorebirds were still moving through in big numbers, with Semipalmated Sandpiper by far the most common species out there. The herpetologist who’s studying the cottonmouths on Seahorse Key, which normally live on fish dropped from the birds’ nests, is thinking about catching mullet with a cast net and feeding the snakes himself through the rest of the year.

Adam and Gina Kent have been doing a lot of work on the Breeding Bird Atlas in Levy County. On the 16th they were atlasing south of Cedar Key, near the Waccasassa Bay Preserve, and found an Ovenbird, a Palm Warbler, an American Redstart … and a Connecticut Warbler, only the second reported in the northern peninsula this spring.

Speaking of the Breeding Bird Atlas, Helen Ogren of Ocala writes to request help with the BBA down there: “We in Marion County really could use some help with mini-routes for the Breeding Bird Atlas project. Sandra Marraffino and Debbie Segal suggested I ask if you could ask your readers if they would like to volunteer to help us. The mini-route consists of a 15-stop driving census of birds observed, especially those engaged in breeding behaviors. I have packets of areas needing counts, with maps, checklists, etc.; that I can get to volunteers. The more eyes and ears, the better; but someone in the group needs to be proficient at birding by ear. The reason is, as in a breeding bird survey, the team needs to start a little before sunrise, when most birds will be singing. It gets sunny and hot so soon, they will become less active.” If you’re able and willing, contact Helen at birdladyofocala@cfl.rr.com

Some good news: a Spanish company has designed wind turbines with no blades! http://www.wired.com/2015/05/future-wind-turbines-no-blades/  Clever Spaniards!

Yep, like I said, still blogging away: http://fieldguide.blogs.gainesville.com/276/the-fuse/

Late warbler migration

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

Normally warbler migration peaks in late April and trails off to almost nothing after the first week of May. In some years, though, the peak comes later, and this appears to be one of those years. Yesterday morning Mike Manetz, Barbara Shea, and I walked Bolen Bluff and came up with some impressive numbers: 32 American Redstarts, 20 Blackpoll Warblers, 20 Northern Parulas, 8 Black-throated Blue Warblers, 6 Common Yellowthroats, 5 Black-and-white Warblers, an Ovenbird, and a Northern Waterthrush. While we were at Bolen Bluff, Andy Kratter was finding lots of warblers in his SE Gainesville neighborhood, including 18 American Redstarts. Mike went back to Bolen Bluff this morning and found that numbers were a little lower but still high, and that two new species had dropped in: 26 American Redstarts, 10 Northern Parulas, 8 Black-throated Blue Warblers, 6 Blackpoll Warblers, 5 Common Yellowthroats, 1 Black-and-white Warbler, 1 Worm-eating Warbler, and 1 Magnolia Warbler, only the second that Mike has ever seen during spring migration in Alachua County.

Also, don’t forget that Sweetwater Wetlands Park is open on weekends, so you can go this afternoon or all day tomorrow. Our two AK’s (Andy Kratter and Adam Kent) and Jonathan Mays paid a visit this morning and tallied 54 species. Highlights included 14 Least Bitterns (including one juvenile), 2 Purple Gallinules, 2 Limpkins, a Prothonotary Warbler, an American Redstart, an Indigo Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak, 12 Bobolinks, and nine species of shorebirds, including 9 Black-necked Stilts, 4 Semipalmated Plovers, 18 Spotted Sandpipers, 4 Solitary Sandpipers, 10 Semipalmated Sandpipers, and 80 Least Sandpipers. The SWP website is here. If you have no idea where SWP is, the best map for finding it is at the bottom of this page: http://www.sweetwaterwetlands.org/#!contact/cudb

By the way, if you want to learn a little more about SWP, you might be interested in this: The Sweetwater Wetlands Park—Gainesville’s Newest Birding Hotspot. Presented by Debbie Segal.  Monday, May 11th at the Thomas Center (new location). Social at 6:30 p.m. and program at 7 p.m. Learn how the Sweetwater Wetlands was designed to remove large quantities of nutrients and pollutants while simultaneously providing diverse wildlife habitat and passive public recreation. Water quality, vegetation planting, hydrologic features, and long-term management will be discussed. This presentation has been scheduled to occur just prior to the May 17th Alachua Audubon field trip to Sweetwater Wetlands Park.

Kathy Malone has had a leucistic Common Grackle hanging around her place in High Springs. It has three or four pure white primary coverts, and the four tail feathers on the left are white. Otherwise it looks perfectly normal. Kathy posted a nice picture on her Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kmalone98/16819442094/in/dateposted-public/

Speaking of photos, on April 21st Trina Anderson got these shots of a Great Blue Heron eating a rather large rodent along the La Chua Trail. I passed them along to Scott Flamand, who in turn passed them along to Fiona Reid, author of the Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America, who identified it as a Hispid Cotton Rat: https://www.flickr.com/photos/46902575@N06/sets/72157649847422004

Does anyone on this list use independent listing software, like Bird Brain, AviSys, Birder’s Diary, or BirdBase? If so, please let me know. I’m especially interested in anyone who’s using listing software on a Mac. Thanks.

It’s like those birds are migrating or something

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

See what you miss when you don’t go on Audubon field trips? Rob Norton got this excellent shot of a Swainson’s Warbler at Steinhatchee Springs WMA on the April 26 Hickory Mound Impoundment trip led by John Hintermister: https://www.flickr.com/photos/73960438@N04/17097720139/

Another case in point: participants in last Sunday’s field trip to Newnans Lake saw two American Avocets fly past the pier at Powers Park. That’s a rare bird in Alachua County.

You’re kicking yourself for not going, aren’t you? Don’t despair, there are still some field trips left: http://www.alachuaaudubon.org/classes-field-trips/

Thrushes, historically rare here during spring migration, have been coming through in surprising numbers during the past two weeks. Beginning on April 20th and continuing through May 5th (but mainly from the 26th through the 2nd) local birders reported 5 Veeries, 4 Gray-cheeked Thrushes, 3 Swainson’s Thrushes, and 6 Wood Thrushes. I previously linked to Becky Enneis’s photo of a Wood Thrush, and Sam Ewing also got a photo of a Gray-cheeked: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121511542@N02/16673743583/  We had an even stronger thrush migration last year. In 2013 it was smaller but still above average, and in 2012 it was closer to normal: a few Wood Thrushes, one Gray-cheeked, one Swainson’s, no Veeries. In spring 2011, only one Wood Thrush and one Veery were observed.

Speaking of migrants, we’re getting to Connecticut Warbler prime time. Of the county’s ten spring reports, all were between May 6th and May 28th, but six of them were between May 9th and May 13th. And remember, Mike Manetz was looking for a Connecticut Warbler when he found this: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/8711298883/  That was a great day: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/8737718788/

Deena Mickelson, Danny Shehee, and Tom Tompkins saw a Brown Pelican over the La Chua Trail on the 30th. Stay away from those three if you don’t want your picture taken: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/17196068340/

I’ve put up another blog post, this one describing a walk on the opening day of Sweetwater Wetlands Park. I was dissatisfied with what I wrote, but the photography, mainly by Danny Shehee (with an assist from Jacksonville’s Kevin Dailey), is excellent, and will give you an idea of what the place looks like if you’ve never been: http://fieldguide.blogs.gainesville.com/239/sweetwater-wetlands-park-open-at-last/

I told the Sun that people were having trouble subscribing to my blog. Trina Anderson had shown me a birding blog that notifies readers by email whenever a new post comes out, so I forwarded that to the editor, and he set up a similar email notification device in the right sidebar of my blog. So if you enter your email address, you’ll get an email whenever I post something new. I don’t think the Sun will sell your email to marketers, but I can’t make any guarantees, so caveat emptor. Or caveat subscriptor in this case.

Going back one paragraph … Attention, eBirders: the new official eBird designation for the sheetflow restoration area is “Sweetwater Wetlands Park.” An eBird hotspot with that name has been established. Please use it – initially with the “Find it on a map” option on the “Where did you bird?” page; afterward it should be under “Choose from your locations.” In that way, all the sightings will be properly gathered into a single database. Old checklists headed “Paynes Prairie Preserve SP–Sheetflow Restoration Wetland” have automatically been changed to the new name.

Also, eBird now has an online store where you can buy eBird hats and tee shirts, though I think it’s still a work in progress: http://shorepromotions.com/ebird_store

Alachua Audubon will hold a Woodpecker Walk for Kids at Northeast Park on May 10th. This is your chance to take a child or grandchild birding, because the Woodpecker Walk is aimed specifically at young people. Meeting time and place here.

Audubon of Florida’s Jacqui Sulek writes, “In honor of International Migratory Bird Day, Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park will be hosting a birding hike on May 9th. There are only 14 spots available for the hike which is in one week. It’s a unique opportunity since we will be driving a van to the boundary of the preserve and then hiking in to a spot near a spring and trying to spot whatever we can while we’re out there. Contact 352-543-5567 to reserve your spot.  If there is no answer leave your name and number and someone will return your call to verify your reservation as soon as possible.”

Hairy Woodpecker at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

This morning Bob Carroll picked up Miami birder Toe Torres in Hawthorne and took him to Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve, where I joined them. Toe’s Florida life list, though 405 species long, was still lacking Hairy Woodpecker. He’d seen one in Virginia, where they’re much more common, but never in Florida. Hairies have been found along the Red Loop at Longleaf the past two or three years, and Ron Robinson and Jim Allison found one out there on March 11th, so that’s where we searched. We wandered for a good mile over the sandhills back there, but finally located it in about the same place where we saw it last year. Walk out the Red-White Connector (turning left onto the service road), and when the trail forks at the beginning of the Red Loop go straight (which is the right fork). Before long you’ll pass the turnoff to the camping area. Just stay on the main trail for about a hundred yards beyond the turnoff and you’ll be in Hairy Woodpecker territory. Listen for its drumming; it drums more often than it calls. We had to go off the trail to see it, and found it in some pines about a hundred feet from the fence marking the northern border of the property. I was looking at a different stand of pines when I heard Bob and Toe calling for me, and I ran back, but not quickly enough. Oh well, I’ll see it during The June Challenge…

Geoff Parks sent me an interesting email at 8:30, while I was at Longleaf: “I’m too busy to do anything about it right now, but there seem to be several migrants singing around Loblolly [NW 5th Avenue just east of NW 34th Street]. I’m hearing a Gray-cheeked Thrush through my office window, and when I came in there was an unusually high-pitched Black-throated Blue. I don’t want to cause a false panic but there’s a slim chance that it was a Cerulean…”

Speaking of migrants, have you watched “Gulf Crossing” yet this spring? It’s a 2013 film about trans-Gulf migration and it features some really beautiful photography. Watch the first minute and a half – just birds and landscapes – and maybe you’ll watch the rest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e20qNjdcSUk

Debbie Segal is looking for photos from Sweetwater Wetland Park (which opens on Saturday!). She writes, “I am preparing a power point presentation of the Sheetflow Wetland (aka Sweetwater Wetland Park) and would like to get a few more photos of birds, people, and/or the public use facilities. Do you know a few folks who might have some photos to share with me? If so, can you please forward this email to them or send me their names so I can contact them?” Let me know if you’ve got photos and I’ll put you in touch with Debbie.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park has just posted a job announcement for their park biologist position (Environmental Specialist I). The preserve is one of the largest remaining tracts of Florida dry prairie. It is a breathtaking and remote landscape. Housing may be provided on site. This position had been held for many years by Paul Miller. He was a strong advocate for the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, which still exists in small numbers at the preserve. It will take a special person to fill this vacancy given the urgent actions needed for the sparrow at this time. There is a very short application deadline (May 1). Please forward this announcement to anyone you know who may be interested. Here is the direct link to the application site: https://jobs.myflorida.com/viewjob.html?optlink-view=view-796452&ERFormID=newjoblist&ERFormCode=any

Alachua County environmental officials are seeking public input on the 1,179 acre Watermelon Pond Preserve at a public meeting on May 4th at 6 p.m. at the Archer City Hall (16870 SW 134th Avenue). They’re looking for input regarding hiking trails, interpretative kiosks, sandhill restoration, and management of the preserve.

This is probably going to end up humiliating me, but how many of you have tried subscribing to my Gainesville Sun blog and failed, and how many have successfully subscribed? Please let me know, since two or three people have complained to me that they can’t subscribe and I’d like to have a number when I talk to the Sun about it. Of course, if the number of people who have tried to subscribe is no more than two or three, I don’t think the Sun will pay a lot of attention to me…

There’s good news and there’s bad news

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

The good news is that Steve Goodman and Sam Ewing, participating for the first time in Georgia’s Youth Birding Challenge, won the first place trophy today (!!!!): https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/17281902992/  Congratulations, guys! WE knew you were great birders, now everyone else does too!

Other good news: Backyard birding is getting more interesting. Just today, Becky Enneis had a Wood Thrush at her place in Alachua, Dana Griffin had an Ovenbird in his NW Gainesville backyard, and Ron Robinson photographed a Summer Tanager and a Black-throated Blue Warbler in his Back Yard De Luxe west of Gainesville.

Now the bad news: UF wildlife biology professor Dr. Peter Frederick, who has been observing the nesting colonies at Seahorse Key over the past few years, has reported a complete abandonment of nesting activity on Seahorse Key that seems to have occurred within the past two weeks. He gave me permission to publish his report, but he had some cautions: “I am very concerned about speculation and blame in the absence of much evidence and I hope that you will emphasize that there are still many possible explanations for what happened, some of which are natural causes. Please remind the readers that in the 1930s the birds bred predominantly on Snake Key and that colonies can be very dynamic.” With that said, here’s Peter’s report from the 25th:

“We learned a lot today about the loss of nesting at Seahorse, though we do not have a conclusive explanation for events. The synopsis is that Maria and Kenny were right – there has been a complete abandonment of all nesting at Seahorse, and many of those birds have apparently begun nesting at Snake Key. The cause of abandonment is unclear, though we think we can rule out one or two of the potential stressors.

“First, the Seahorse Key trip, in which we walked over large portions of Gardiners Point, revealed no active nesting of any species aside from ospreys on their platforms. Cormorants, Pelicans, ibises, egrets, herons, spoonbills – all are gone. Vic had recorded very typical flight line counts only two weeks ago and I had heard that Larry Woodward may have seen evidence of nesting even more recently. We found nests that were falling apart with no eggs or chicks, and hundreds of eggs on the ground, nearly all of which had been opened by Fish Crows. The characteristic marks of avian egg puncture (shell edge pushed inwards, intact hemispheres of eggs) are easy to tell from raccoon marks (crushed eggs, teeth marks) and we only found one or two eggs that might have been handled by a raccoon. All of this could well have been scavenging rather than direct egg predation. We also saw the remains of up to 15 dead cormorants, five dead pelicans, two dead ibises, three dead black-crowned night herons, and one dead fish crow. We estimate that there must have been many more dead birds – we did not cover the entire island or the entirety of Gardiners Point.

“Its unclear if the numbers of dead birds are abnormal – all breeding aggregations of birds have dead individuals lying about. I thought the number was excessive for normal mortality, though there was disagreement on this point by Marilyn Spalding, who has also been in a lot of colonies. The mortalities all seemed to be roughly the same age though, and many still had beetle larvae on them that may help us to define the rough time of death, CSI style. We collected about seven of the carcasses, and though all were bones and feathers, no flesh, there may be important information to be had from them. The synchronicity of the mortalities is also atypical of most healthy colonies.

“All signs pointed to a mass abandonment of nests that was at least roughly synchronous. The fact that so many species abandoned at once makes interruptions in many different food supplies at once unlikely as an explanation – so does the fact that nearly all species appear to have re-initiated nesting on Snake Key. The lack of evidence of raccoon bite marks on eggs suggests that raccoons were not the primary source of nest abandonment. We found no raccoon tracks on the beaches of Gardiners Point and found only one scat in the interior of Gardiners Point – it did not appear to have shell fragments or feathers in it. We walked the entire gulf-facing beach front on Seahorse and found tracks on the southeast part, suggestive of one or perhaps two individuals. Since Fish Crows cannot usually intimidate birds off their nests, their eating of eggs looks entirely secondary to the abandonment – the crows were scavenging abandoned eggs. The fact that the birds have re-initiated on Snake Key strongly suggests that something occurred at Seahorse that was hugely incompatible with nesting there, and frightened all the birds off.

“There are several possibilities for the cause. Eagles could have begun attacking adult nesting birds – this has caused mass abandonment before in seabird colonies, and the placement and skeleton evidence suggests that the carcasses we found could have been eaten by a raptor. However, they could also have been cleaned off by crabs or rats or beetle larvae and the evidence might have looked very similar. Eagles are common at Seahorse, but they have coexisted with birds there for some years and at other colonies elsewhere in coastal situations for some years. Snake Key has a resident pair – if the birds were flipped out by predatory eagles it seems unlikely they would have chosen Snake to re-nest.

“Human disturbance that included killing through shooting or some other mechanism could also be a possibility. The placement and disposition of the dead birds could have been from birds that were shot. There were many more carcasses on the edge, particular the north end of Gardiners Point, than in the middle. Thus someone with a gun might have been shooting  birds from a boat, creating this pattern. The carcasses we collected should allow us to tell whether they were shot – usually there are marks on bones that indicate the passage of lead shot, though this is easier to tell with shotgun than with single shot. We also found no shell casings despite some pretty intensive looking-down to avoid the cottonmouth moccasins. Similarly,  predation by eagles has characteristic talon marks that often puncture the back of the head. So I believe it would be of great value to get the carcasses analyzed by some lab that can do decent forensics. While it seems farfetched that someone would do such a thing (and even more, that no one would hear or see it), remember that we have probably gone two weeks without noticing that the birds had abandoned – so our detection and monitoring is episodic, and such an event could well have occurred.

“We did find large numbers of all the species except ibises nesting on Snake Key, nearly all on the north side. We saw one pelican apparently on a nest and many others building and courting. I counted 65 cormorant nests and over 150 individuals, many of which were carrying nesting material. We saw Roseate Spoonbills carrying nesting material and descending with it into the mangroves on the north side, and at least two Great Egrets carrying nesting material and displaying high courtship colors on the nares. In short, everything that abandoned at Seahorse was at Snake, starting anew, albeit probably in smaller numbers. Note that this section is being monitored by trail cameras set on poles looking towards the island, and these cameras should have been able to document the buildup of birds there – which may help us pinpoint the timing of the abandonment at Seahorse.

“We may never know what happened on Seahorse – but it is unprecedented in the history of the island as far as I or anyone else on the trip today knew. While the past numbers of nests have fluctuated, there is no record of zero in recent history, especially by all species. This could be temporary, and the birds might return to Seahorse next year, or it could be permanent, especially if they do well at Snake this year. Given the numbers of birds at Snake, it seems appropriate to put up no entry postings as they have been at Seahorse, since in my experience human disturbance from beachgoers and fishermen could be detrimental to nesting – but those are agency decisions to make.

“My experience with other colony abandonments is that we humans tend to jump to conclusions, and usually blame humans for such events, especially in the absence of evidence. Before we do so, I think we should at least get the carcasses analyzed. Until that time, I suggest that we ought to repeat that the abandonments at Seahorse appeared to be synchronous within the last two weeks, and the events leading to that abandonment are unclear. Interruptions in the food supply seems like the least likely explanation at this point, and investigations are ongoing. We should encourage anyone with observations about the nesting at seahorse to contact the Refuge. We should also appeal to the public to keep at least 100 meters away from the shores of Snake Key on all sides to give the birds a chance to re-nest. Given the late start of nesting there, it will probably be necessary to keep disturbance to a minimum well into July.

“I have probably missed important points in this whole description, and so encourage everyone to add information if they can.”

I wonder what will happen to the famous Seahorse Key cottonmouths, which survive on dead fish that fall from the nests. They’ll have a long wait between now and next spring, if the birds even return next spring.

It was twenty years ago today…

From: Rex Rowan <rexrowan@gmail.com>
To: Alachua County birding report

Mark your calendar! Sweetwater Wetland Park – what we’ve been calling the sheetflow restoration area – will open to the general public on weekends beginning on Saturday, May 2nd. Hours of operation will be 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. on both Saturdays and Sundays, and the admission price will be $5.00 per car. It’s not going to have enough parking places!

There’s a field trip to Sweetwater Wetland Park (SWP) tomorrow, your last chance to bird the place without paying an admission fee. It’s actually a Santa Fe Audubon field trip, but they’ve extended an invitation to Gainesville birders to join them. Be at the SWP entrance at 8:30 – not the usual double-gated entrance, but the single gate about a hundred yards to the north – and be prompt, because Debbie Segal will have to lock it after everyone gets there. She wanted to scout out the birding conditions before the field trip, so this afternoon she went for a drive around the cells, and she invited Dotty Robbins and me to come along. In the overflow channel that borders the cells on the north side we found shorebirds of a dozen species in a muddy, grassy tract that was partly flooded. There were lots of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, lots of Solitary and Least Sandpipers, Killdeer, two Semipalmated Plovers, two Semipalmated Sandpipers, three Long-billed Dowitchers, a Pectoral Sandpiper, a Stilt Sandpiper, and (tying the county’s early record) a White-rumped Sandpiper. There were lots of birds out there, and it’s possible that we missed something. In a different part of the park we counted 63 Bobolinks. Other sightings included Limpkins, Least Bitterns, an American Bittern, a Purple Gallinule, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

I suspect that all those birds will still be around when SWP opens on May 2nd, so don’t feel that you have to give up tomorrow’s trip to Hickory Mound Impoundment and Steinhatchee Springs WMA: http://www.alachuaaudubon.org/event/hickory-mound-wildlife-management-area/?instance_id=405

Earlier in the day I’d led the community education birding class out La Chua. We got most of the expected birds, and nothing unexpected: Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Yellow-breasted Chat, Purple Gallinule, and Least Bittern. A couple of us stayed late and added a Summer Tanager and two lingering winter birds, Sora and Northern Harrier, to the day’s list. The Alachua Audubon Society field trip to Bolen Bluff, also held this morning, found American Redstarts, Black-throated Blue Warblers, a Cape May Warbler, Bobolinks, and a Whooping Crane.

People are reporting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at their feeders. Evelyn Perry had two in her yard near the Kanapaha Prairie on the 23rd, and Bob and Erika Simons had two at their place in SW Gainesville on the 24th. My favorite Rose-breasted Grosbeak report, however, was the one Ron Robinson submitted on the 22nd, because it was accompanied by a photo of a grosbeak feeding right next to a Pine Siskin, not a combination we often see around here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/17234681116/

If you remember, a pair of American Robins nested in Geoff Parks’s NE Gainesville neighborhood last summer. They seem to be back. Geoff is seeing as many as three hanging around, weeks after the migrant robins have gone north. Even more interesting, Mike Manetz has heard one singing every morning in his NW Gainesville neighborhood, about a mile from Geoff’s place. I suspect it’s one of the offspring from last year’s nesting. But does it have any chance of finding a mate? And, if so, isn’t any female robin that’s still in Gainesville likely to be a sibling?

Finally, excuse the self-indulgence, but the next five paragraphs are from a diary entry, written twenty years ago tomorrow, describing a significant event (well, significant to me and Mike Manetz) that occurred twenty years ago today:

“Since September Mike Manetz and I have been working on a pamphlet, A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Alachua County, Florida. We really started writing around the end of December, and had most of the text done by last month. At this point Jonathan [Vaughan, a high-school friend of mine] was supposed to have taken over and, using his training in layout and graphic design, made a book out of it, but his father developed pancreatic cancer, and Jonathan spent every spare minute at his bedside. When his father died earlier this month, Jonathan really got down to work on the book. I went up to Jacksonville and spent most of a weekend in front of his computer, changing this word, asking him to alter that map; and then last Thursday he brought the computer down and Mike and I looked over everything, suggested a few last-minute changes, and got the final version printed out right there in my dining room. The next morning I delivered it to Xerographics, an inexpensive photocopying shop Mike had made a deal with.

“Yesterday afternoon at 5:30 Mike and his 10-year-old daughter Ashley met me at Xerographics. The pamphlet was still being trimmed and boxed, so we stood around nervously, wondering if they’d left anything out, or stapled anything in upside down. A UF biologist with a young son was there also, conferring with the staff about a Spanish-language folder on a rainforest conference to be held in Peru. When the boxes of our pamphlets were brought out, it took him less than ten seconds to walk over and ask, ‘Can I buy one?’ Mike said sure, and after commenting about the relatively high price (Mike replied, ‘How many thousands of hours of work did we put into this, Rex?’), he wrote us a check. So Peter Polshek was our first purchaser. And he made us autograph the title page. Mike said, as we were walking out the door, ‘I was real cool when he asked to buy the book in there, but I want to tell you, I just barely kept myself from jumping up and down.’

“So how did it feel to have the book in our hands? Partly good and partly disappointing. Here was this thing we’d been visualizing for so long, and we could actually heft it in our hands, and turn the pages, and see our pictures on the back cover and our names on the front. But they’d used cheap paper, so that the back of each sheet showed through, and some of the pages were crooked, and several of the covers had shoddy trimming jobs that gave them frayed edges. So that took the edge off our giddiness – but still I couldn’t keep my hands off the books on my drive home. I kept picking them up and looking at them.

“Last night Nina and the kids and I went over to the Manetzes’ and colored the pamphlet covers. Each cover depicted a Mississippi Kite drawn by Diana, Mike’s wife, and we colored in each of the 249 remaining kites’ eyes with red magic markers.

“This morning I showed the books around the office. Everybody smiled and went, ‘Oh!’ and leafed through it briefly, but no one seemed really interested. Mike, on the other hand, called at about 8:30 to tell me he’d already sold five copies at the school where he teaches.”

Of course that 1995 edition, with its 64 pages, 12 maps, and species accounts for 227 annually- and irregularly-occurring birds, made way for the 2006 edition, with 128 pages, 42 maps, and species accounts for each of the 340 bird species ever recorded in Alachua County. It’s about time for a third edition, but Mike and I are now very old (a surprise to many people who see that 1995 photo on the back of the book) and our vital energies are waning, etc. Who knows, though? We may have one more edition in us. Meanwhile, the 2006 book is still available at Wild Birds Unlimited.

Incidentally, Kevin Dailey is working on a similar project for Duval County: http://birdingjacksonville.com/  It’s quite impressive. Click on “Locations” and “Species” on the menu. It’s a work in progress, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it when he’s done.