Blue bird bonanza

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

On the 21st Dean Ewing wrote, “If people want to see a blue bonanza, just go over to Mildred’s Big City Food (south of University Avenue, just west of 34th Street) and walk over to Hogtown Creek. I saw lots of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks there this morning while riding my bike. Samuel, Benjamin, and I just returned from there and counted at least a dozen Blue Grosbeaks and 50 Indigo Buntings feeding on the long grasses along the creek. Amazing sight.” Samuel got a photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121511542@N02/13961686364/ (By the way, that may be worth checking for Bobolink flocks in the near future.)

It’s that time of the year: I’m starting to hear baby birds calling around my neighborhood. A pair of cardinals are feeding at least one fledgling, and I can hear the whining of a young mockingbird begging for food across the street. Yesterday at San Felasco Hammock I checked on a Hooded Warbler nest that I found on the 10th. When I’d first discovered it, the female had been putting the finishing touches on a perfect little cup about five feet high in a sapling laurel oak. When I looked in yesterday, it appeared to have been abandoned – until I approached, flushing the female off the nest. I took a peek inside – four eggs, none of them cowbird eggs – and made a rapid retreat so she could get back to hatching them.

Speaking of nests, the intrepid husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Mays and Ellen Robertson found Limpkin and Turkey Vulture nests while kayaking Prairie Creek on the 20th. I thought that Limpkins nested on the ground in marsh vegetation, but they can also nest in trees, and that’s what Jonathan found: “a nice stick-built nest six feet or so above the water in the crook of an overhanging hardwood.” He posted a photo here. And then Ellen spotted a vulture nest in an atypical situation. Jonathan writes, “I’ve only seen them nest in cave entrances and rock shelters before, but this one was about 25 feet up in a bald cypress. I think the nest itself was an old Osprey nest. Stick built but the sticks were old and the bowl of the nest was mostly gone so that it resembled more of a platform. My first thought was the vulture was eating an old egg of another bird but I raised my glasses and there were at least two white downy vultures in view. And let me tell you, baby vultures are cute!”

If you haven’t looked at Jonathan’s photos lately, you’re missing some great stuff, especially if you have an interest in reptiles and amphibians as well as birds: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmays/

And speaking of photos, Glenn Price got some gorgeous pictures of the birds we saw on Sunday’s Cedar Key field trip: http://raptorcaptor.smugmug.com/Nature/Recent/ (In order: Gray-cheeked Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, Great Crested Flycatcher, Merlin, Summer Tanager, another Scarlet Tanager, Cape May Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Blackpoll Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler.)

The field trip went pretty well. Our first stop was the trestle trail, and as soon as we got out of our cars around the corner from the trailhead we were deluged with birds. It was simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating, because there were too many to keep track of, flying here, flying there, one amazing bird distracting us from another – Yellow Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, little flocks of Indigo Buntings down in the grass of someone’s front yard, Blue Grosbeaks and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks around a feeder in somebody else’s back yard. I thought that I was about to have the best Cedar Key experience of my life. But the trestle trail itself was almost birdless, and when we left the neighborhood of the trestle trail for other hotspots like the cemetery and the museum, we found conditions more subdued. Which is not to say there weren’t any birds around. We saw plenty, some of them at very close range, especially at the loquat trees near the museum (as you may have noticed from Glenn’s photos). The variety of warblers didn’t approach the 25 we saw on Wednesday, but it was somewhere north of 15, and late in the day (after I left, of course) John Hintermister found a Bay-breasted, a rare bird in spring migration.

(By the way, in a previous report I passed along the information that the Cedar Key airfield had been fenced due to drone flights. That’s not true. Dale Henderson wrote, “I asked the police chief about the drones at the airstrip. As I thought, there is no truth to that story. When the county sought reauthorization for the strip, they had to secure the strip with the fence. Without it there would have been no government funds! That’s usually at the bottom of these weird changes. The original fence was to be much higher, but they agreed to the shorter one. There may be silver linings for the birds – less access means less disturbance – but not for the birders. I think it’s also been problematic for the alligator that comes and goes from the cattail swamp. He made a passageway under the fence. We could try that!”)

Locally, this year’s spring migration has been unusually good, but if it follows the normal pattern it will drop off pretty quickly after April 30th. So get out if you can and enjoy it while it lasts. Where to go? La Chua was overrun with Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Prairie Warblers, and swallows of several species on the 21st, and at least three Yellow-breasted Chats were singing along Sparrow Alley this morning. I recorded twelve species of warblers (including six Black-throated Blues, four Worm-eatings, Black-throated Green, and Blackpoll), plus Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, along the Moonshine Creek Trail at San Felasco Hammock (Millhopper Road entrance) on the afternoon of the 21st. So those might be your best bets, though any patch of woodland (Loblolly Woods, Bolen Bluff, and Lake Alice come to mind) could hold some interesting birds. Wear boots if you go to La Chua, because it’s pretty wet out there. Frank Goodwin wrote that he and his wife Irina “dog-paddled” out to the observation platform on the 21st, but they had their reward: a Stilt Sandpiper fueling up at Alachua Lake during its long flight to the Arctic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/13968214152/

Get out there, enjoy this beautiful spring, and tell me what you see.

Nelson’s Sparrow at La Chua!

Adam Zions found the county’s third-ever Nelson’s Sparrow along the La Chua Trail on the 20th. He describes the location as “about halfway between the ‘s’ curve before it straightens out for the last bit before the platform. If you go looking for it, you’ll notice the more open water on your right as you first take the bend (where they placed the extra soil), then another smaller patch of somewhat open water on your right a little further ahead. Go past this to the third, and smallest patch of somewhat open water on your right, which should be about halfway or slightly past halfway along the ‘s’ curve, and that’s where I observed it foraging on grass seeds.” Nelson’s Sparrow is a saltmarsh species in Florida and is pretty common along the Gulf Coast, but it nests in freshwater marshes on the Great Plains – Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta – and some of the birds get slightly disoriented during fall migration. Not many of them, though; inland sightings in Florida are very scarce. Adam’s eBird checklist, which includes five photos of the bird, can be seen here.

At least two Yellow-headed Blackbirds are still slumming at the Hague Dairy. I got there a little after eleven on the 20th, just as a flock of two or three thousand blackbirds swarmed up and disappeared to the west. I hung around for another hour and a half, but the birds never came back, so I went home. Just an hour after I left (naturally!) Brad Bergstrom and Margaret Harper of Valdosta State University showed up and saw “two Yellow-headed Blackbirds atop the transformer pole near the Admin. bldg. (where visitors sign in) from 2-3 pm. While I was signing in, Margaret was standing right next to the car looking at the two birds. When I walked  back out of the office, at first I thought she was joking about seeing the blackbirds. That was a years-long nemesis bird for her; it’s not supposed to be that easy!” On the 16th Jonathan Mays got a photo of THREE Yellow-headeds feeding together, but no one else has been that lucky; I think it may be the largest number ever recorded here during a single fall, and he had them all in his viewfinder at once! Two Bronzed Cowbirds were also seen at the dairy by Adam Zions on the 14th and by several observers on the 15th, but on the 16th Jonathan found only one. Both species may yet be present. By the way, Bob Carroll related his own search for the Yellow-headed in characteristically amusing style on his blog.

There’s a new sign on the door of the dairy office: “Attention all birdwatchers: Please park in the designated areas and walk. Do not block the roadways or gates. Do not cross any fences. Do not go through any gates. Do not interfere with dairy operations.” I’m not sure what occasioned this, but please observe their rules conscientiously. I think the dairy employees find us odd but harmless, and that’s how we want to keep it. The designated parking area is here. I asked one of the employees in the office about the “Do not go through the gates” rule, and he told me that this applied only to closed gates.

Sometimes the best place to go birding is your back yard. Becky Enneis has been proving that point this fall. There’s a huge sprawling live oak in her back yard, and she’s set up a water drip under one of the lowest limbs. It always gets a lot of birds, but this week has been particularly exciting, with a Chestnut-sided Warbler on the 20th, a Bay-breasted Warbler on the 18th, and on the 17th a Swamp Sparrow, one of the earliest of the fall and not exactly a typical backyard bird. And over in rural Columbia County on the 19th Jerry Krummrich enjoyed a varied and highly entertaining few minutes of backyard birding: “At the mister right outside my window in a river birch tree, in the space of 15 minutes, I had furious activity and 17 species of birds. Pine, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, and Black-and-white Warblers – several of some species, including a male of each species, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanager, immature male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Cardinals (about 10), Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Flicker, Mourning Dove, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird.”

Bachman’s Sparrows used to be resident at Morningside Nature Center, but during the past twenty or so years their occurrence at the park has been unpredictable. John Martin found one there on February 10th and got a video, but as far as I know there weren’t any additional encounters until Geoff Parks heard one singing on October 18th: “As I was going past an area we burned back in May, near the north end of Sandhill Road, I heard some sparrow-like ‘seet’ calls so I stopped for a few moments to see if anything interesting was around. To my surprise, from out of the grasses nearby I heard a Bachman’s Sparrow giving a whisper song. It did it several times over a few minutes; it sounded exactly like the normal song, just very quiet. I didn’t try to coax it into the open and never managed to see the bird, but I’m certain that’s what it was. Maybe this one will stick around until spring. Mysterious little critters!”

I got a very nice trip report from Adam Zions about Alachua Audubon’s Levy Lake field trip on Saturday the 20th: “A hearty troop of 11 intrepid explorers and one half-witted trip leader set out at 8 a.m. along the Levy Lake loop trail at Barr Hammock. Several Gainesville birders and a few out-of-towners from Chiefland, Inverness, and Cape Canaveral set out to see what the trail had to offer. An Eastern Phoebe and an adult Red-shouldered Hawk greeted everyone at the parking lot, a precursor of what would follow. Even though week-long winds from the north, combined with a lack of a front from the south, seemed to push most migrants onward to Central America and the Caribbean, the group tallied a total of 50 different species, including 9 different warbler species, The favorites being an Orange-crowned Warbler (first of the season for everyone) and a Tennessee. Strong numbers of wintering species were noted, especially Eastern Phoebe, Palm Warbler, and Gray Catbird. Highlights of the day included close observations of 4 incredibly-obliging American Bitterns, a flock of 8, late Northern Rough-winged Swallows, an adult Bald Eagle getting chased by a Red-shouldered Hawk, a few Sandhill Cranes, sizeable numbers of Indigo Buntings, and many first-of-the-season birds for most participants (e.g., Savannah Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Northern Flicker). Non-avian highlights included a White-tailed doe, Striped Mud Turtle, a mother American Alligator and several of her offspring, and a 4′-4.5′ Cottonmouth shed. The feathered remains of a Red-shouldered Hawk were noted as well. Sunny, yet cool weather obliged for the majority of the trip, until the last mile of the trip when an unexpected storm front poured buckets and soaked everyone. Everyone stayed in good spirits, but made due haste to the parking lot. It was a very lively and engaging crew, and made for an excellent first AAS trip out to the Levy Lake portion of Barr Hammock. Group eBird checklist link: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S15444710