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.

Oh MIKI you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind

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

Gainesville City Naturalist Geoff Parks read the subject line of the last birding report and inquired, “Do you get your ‘springerie’ at Victorious Egret?” Geoff gets First Prize!

Phil Laipis and several other Gainesville birders visited Cedar Key on the 10th to see what was shaking. As a matter of fact, a lot was shaking. Phil wrote: “82 species, including Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and 12 warbler species (Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler). Highs for me were the Wood Thrush, and the Louisiana Waterthrush wagging its bottom. First time I’ve seen that rotary motion and could compare it to the Northern Waterthrush’s ‘Spotted Sandpiper up-down wag’. Pat Burns spotted a male Cape May which I have no decent pictures of, and I might have seen a male Blackpoll Warbler, but did not get a long enough look to be positive. Windy, and all the birds seemed to be concentrated in town, not at the cemetery or the museum. We never looked hard for shorebirds, and Pat and I looked for the Yellow Rail reported in mid-January with, of course, no success.” Phil did manage to get a nice photo of a snake I’ve never seen, a Gulf Hammock Rat Snake: https://www.flickr.com/photos/74215662@N04/13766355403/

I took a leisurely walk around San Felasco Hammock this afternoon, the trails north of Millhopper Road. All the migrant warblers that Matt O’Sullivan and I found in the sandhill on the 8th were gone, and in fact I only saw one transient species, Worm-eating Warbler. But I saw five of those, including two that appeared to be engaged in a singing duel. Other good sightings: several Hooded Warblers, including a female who was putting the finishing touches on a perfect little nest; my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the spring (though they’ve been here since late March); and two female Eastern Towhees of the red-eyed (northern) race. I ran into Dalcio Dacol, who had seen an early Acadian Flycatcher along the Hammock Cutoff trail. I walked about a quarter of a mile down the trail in hopes of finding it, but I had no luck. (Of course “no luck” is relative, given that I spent several hours of a truly gorgeous day walking around San Felasco Hammock!)

Migrant Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are showing up in residential areas, so watch your feeders. Adam Zions and Samuel Ewing saw them in their respective NW Gainesville back yards on the 10th.

While birding around his yard, Samuel also spotted the season’s first Mississippi Kite (MIKI in bird-banding code), one of my very favorite birds. This is a little early; in previous years the majority arrived during the last third of the month.

Scott Flamand saw two Canada Geese fly over Buchholz High School on the morning of the 10th. We don’t have a population of domestic or feral Canada Geese around here, at least as far as I know, but I doubt that they were wild. Wild Canada Geese are mostly a thing of the past in Florida. They used to be very common winter birds in the northern part of the state – a Fish and Game Commission waterfowl inventory tallied 47,000 of them in 1953! But now they spend the cold months farther north. I’ve been birding for 40 years and I’ve seen wild Canada Geese in Florida on only three occasions (feral birds are common in Jacksonville and Tallahassee). Anyway, if you see free-flying geese around here, please let me know.

The Alachua Audubon Society, like all Audubon Societies, avoids partisan politics, but I don’t think we’d be violating that principle if we were to congratulate our president, Helen Warren, on her victory in the City Commission election. Because of her new responsibilities, Helen will be leaving the Audubon board next month after several years. We thank you for your service, Helen, and we wish you well, but you have jumped from the frying pan into the fire….

Yes, I understand that this is the herpetological equivalent of a puppy video, and I acknowledge that my posting it is a symptom of creeping senility. And yet I cannot help myself. Be sure your audio is on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBkWhkAZ9ds (I sent this to my son, who’s an infantry officer, and he declared, “I shall adopt his tactics for my own!”) (That’s funnier if you’ve seen the video.)

Additional springerie

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

There are two stages of life. Stage One is, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” Stage Two is, “You’re not getting better, you’re getting older.” When Samuel Ewing recently corrected my misidentification of a Cooper’s Hawk I realized that I have reached Stage Two. (Apologies to you whippersnappers who are too young to remember that advertising campaign. I’d bemoan the state of cultural literacy, if I weren’t so shocked by the realization that I consider advertising to be a part of cultural literacy….)

When that front was moving through Gainesville last night and this morning, it occurred to me that migrants might run into that weather and be forced down. I called Matt O’Sullivan to see if he was interested in going out to have a look, and he was. Our first stop was the Newberry area. I had an idea that we could check the fields around Watermelon Pond for grounded Upland Sandpipers and other migrant shorebirds. As it turned out, the road to Watermelon Pond was too mucky for my Camry, so we checked a nearby sod farm and some recently-plowed fields along SW 46th Avenue. It sure looked good, and we saw an Eastern Kingbird, three Common Ground-Doves, a White-winged Dove, and three Fox Squirrels, but no sandpipers. As the clouds broke up and the sun came out, we drove on to San Felasco Hammock (the Millhopper Road entrance, north side) to see if the rain had brought in any woodland migrants. It had. Although Yellow-rumped Warblers outnumbered everything else by five to one, we ended up with twelve warbler species, including five Prairie Warblers, an adult male American Redstart, an adult male Black-throated Blue Warbler, and an adult male Cape May Warbler. There was quite a lot of bird activity there, including several newly-arrived Great Crested Flycatchers and Summer Tanagers. We figured that Palm Point should be pretty good as well, so we made the long drive across town, speculating that we’d find even more warblers, not to mention gulls and terns dropped in by the front. But Palm Point was devoid of birds, and scanning Newnans Lake we saw no gulls, no terns, nothing but cormorants and the occasional Osprey – though we did find three or four of the resident Prothonotary Warblers and a Limpkin farther down Lakeshore Drive.

Spring arrivals are increasing in number and variety. Over the past week or two, La Chua Trail has seen the arrival of (click on the hyperlinks for photos) Black-necked Stilt (over 30 have been seen at once!), Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Purple Gallinule, Least Bittern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Yellow-breasted Chat (though the chat may have spent the winter).

Jonathan Mays saw the spring’s first Rose-breasted Grosbeak in his SE Gainesville yard on the 5th: “Slightly early; beautiful male, no song but gave occasional call note, which sounds like a shoe squeaking on a basketball court.”

On the morning of the 7th I went to La Chua in search of spring arrivals and found myself gawking at the season’s heaviest Common Loon migration. With about fifteen other birders I’d kicked off this year’s Loonacy at the US-441 observation platform on March 16th. We saw only four or five loons, all of them very far away, and I’m pretty sure that I discouraged everyone out there from any further loon watching. I wish they’d all been with me yesterday. I saw 57 birds, in 22 groups ranging in size from 1 to 9, and some of them were flying at surprisingly low altitudes. Here’s how it worked out, by ten-minute segments:

7:50-8:00   17 birds
8:00-8:10   5
8:10-8:20   21
8:20-8:30   1
8:30-8:40   5
8:40-8:50   0
8:50-9:00   2
9:00-9:10   5
9:10-9:20   1

Cedar Key sunrise was at 7:16 on the 7th, so the birds that I saw passed over Gainesville from 34 minutes after sunrise to nearly two hours after, suggesting a takeoff ranging from about half an hour before sunrise to an hour afterward. The flight peaked from 8:14 to 8:16, when I saw 17 birds in five groups.

Andy Kratter had an even better morning than I did: “It was giddy excitement and thrills at my loon census this morning. The loons started at 8:09 with two migrating far to the north, and in the next 95 minutes I recorded a near-constant stream of ones and twos and small groups (largest group = 18), for a total of 133 for the day, in 49 groups. Also had two White-winged Doves, a high flying migrant Belted Kingfisher, a migrant American Kestrel, and lots of the usual suspects. One of my best days ever loon watching.” And Samuel Ewing, watching from his NW Gainesville yard, tallied 33 loons between 8:32 and 9:11. Samuel got this picture of a migrating loon in flight on the 31st: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121511542@N02/13538401855/in/photostream/

The Hairy Woodpecker at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve has been relatively cooperative lately. Most of those who have been looking for it have found it. Walk out the Red-White Connector trail to the service road and turn left. When the trail forks, keep going straight (i.e., take the right fork) and look for the sign to the campground. Once at the campground, listen for a rapid drumming. You’ll probably have to set out from the campground and explore the woods to the north and northwest, but as I say most of those who have gone in search of this bird have found it. Here’s a nice picture by Samuel Ewing, showing the characteristic spike-like bill: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121511542@N02/13648935265/in/photostream/

John Hintermister, Phil Laipis, and I motored out onto Lake Santa Fe on the 27th, hoping to relocate the two Black Scoters that Adam Kent and Ryan Butryn had found on the 20th. We found 220 Ruddy Ducks, a Lesser Scaup, 32 Horned Grebes (some in breeding plumage), and 19 Common Loons – even the Pacific Loon! – but no scoters of any description. Learning that the Pacific Loon was still there, Adam went back on the 2nd to try for it again, and missed it again, but … “saw what was possibly a White-winged Scoter. The bird was so far away that I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked like a big black duck with white in the wings.”

Like all right-thinking people, I regularly check Katherine Edison’s blog. I especially like the posts that teach me the names of wildflowers: http://earthteachme.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-ditch-is-back.html

FWC ornithologist Karl Miller writes, “FWC is conducting a genetic analysis of Osprey at various locations in peninsular Florida to clarify the taxonomic status and conservation significance of birds in southern Florida. We need to identify Osprey nests which can be accessed by tree climbing or with the aid of bucket trucks in order to conduct genetic sampling of young nestlings. Lower nests in urban/suburban/exurban environments are often easily accessible. Alachua County will serve as a reference site in the northern peninsula. Please contact Karl Miller at karl.miller@myfwc.com or 352-334-4215 with the locations of active Osprey nests in and around Gainesville. GPS locations and/or maps and/or photos are appreciated!”

Barn Owl? We got yer Barn Owl right here

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

I hadn’t heard of anyone staking out the US-441 observation platform for Barn Owls this month, so at 7:30 Wednesday evening Ron Robinson and I met there to see what would fly by as the sun went down. There wasn’t much to look at – a couple of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, half a dozen Sandhill Cranes (including a couple of full-grown juveniles), a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bunch of Red-winged Blackbirds – and as it got darker and darker I was afraid we were going to be skunked. But at 8:50 we spotted a Barn Owl flying around, and at 8:55 a Black-crowned Night-Heron popped up from the willows south of the platform. Both were new June Challenge birds for us.

Ron and Greg Hart and I visited a bunch of birding spots on Tuesday morning. We started at the Newberry cemetery, which I’d never visited before. The Eastern Wood-Pewee was singing as we opened the car door, and within thirty seconds we had it in view. Northern Flicker and White-winged Dove were almost as easy to find. Then we headed east to north Gainesville, where Ron had found a family of Pied-billed Grebes on Monday. He was driving past a retention pond at the intersection of NE 35th Avenue and NE 4th Street (which, despite the “NE,” is actually a block west of Main Street) when he spotted the birds in the water, an adult and eight almost-grown chicks. From there we went all the way to the southeastern end of the county, to see if anything unusual was at River Styx or Lake Lochloosa. We got a Prothonotary Warbler at River Styx and a Bald Eagle at Lochloosa, but nothing else of note. Then it was back to Gainesville, to check Lake Alice for a Belted Kingfisher that Frank and Irina Goodwin had seen there on Sunday. We waited for fifteen minutes, and though we saw a Swallow-tailed Kite we never saw the kingfisher (which doesn’t mean it’s not there). Our last stop was Possum Creek Park, where we found a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in a shady recess of a buttonbush thicket.

Frank Goodwin and I splashed into Gum Root Swamp on Monday morning in search of Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Barred Owl. The vireos, a pair of them, were right there in the parking lot. The Barred Owl was perched over the creek just beyond the first bridge. But to get to the warbler we had to get our feet wet – all the way up to mid-thigh. It turned out to be a really lovely experience. The mosquitoes had been bothering us in the uplands, but when we entered the water we left them behind. The air was cool. And our surroundings were green and beautiful. When we got out to the edge of the lake we found our Prothonotary, who sang unceasingly and came close enough for Frank to get a picture. And there were a couple of surprises. We discovered the hot-pink egg clusters of the exotic Island Apple Snail in Hatchet Creek for the first time ever and, not coincidentally, discovered their chief predator shortly thereafter – a bird that’s becoming fairly common at Newnans Lake because of the snails’ exploding population. And when I idly kicked at a knot on a rotten cypress tree lying on the ground, I uncovered the one and only Rough Earthsnake I’ve seen in my life. Sure, it’s small and nondescript, but it was the most exciting moment of the day for me. I submitted Frank’s photo to the museum’s herpetology department as an “image voucher,” because – and this will give you some idea how uncommonly they’re found – they have only one specimen collected since 1970.

On Tuesday, Becky Enneis found Black-bellied Whisting-Ducks and an American Coot at Home Depot Pond, off Tower Road just south of Newberry Road. And as long as you’re in that neighborhood, don’t forget the Graylag Geese at Red Lobster Pond. And once you’ve seen them, head over to the Duck Pond for the Black Swans. The geese and swans aren’t really countable, but they belong on your June Challenge list. Why? Because, just because. I’ll tell you when you’re older.

Danny Shehee writes, “I was birding around the wetland area at Magnolia Park just beyond the open field. I met a young woman looking for her Quaker Parrot [Monk Parakeet] named Rio, he`s a small parrot. She said he would come if he heard his name called. Her name is Lilia and her number is 352-870-2711. I thought the birding community might just happen to see him.”

First two days of The June Challenge

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

I showed up at Morningside Nature Center on Sunday morning to make sure everyone on the butterfly field trip signed the liability form and wouldn’t be able to sue us for butterfly bites, etc. Maralee Joos pulled in right behind me. She told me that she’d just come from Palm Point, where Lloyd Davis had found and photographed a very late Tree Swallow. As soon as everyone had signed the form I rushed to Palm Point in hopes of seeing it myself, but I was too late.

That’s probably the best bird found on The June Challenge so far. The best I’ve heard about, anyway.

Saturday’s field trip in search of June Challenge birds was very well attended – I think I counted 34 or 35 people – but the birds were not eager to be seen, so we spent a lot more time searching for them, and a lot less time actually enjoying them, than I’d expected. We did eventually find most of what we were hoping for, though. At Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve we got a quick glimpse of three Common Nighthawks and (after quite a bit of walking) got to ogle a very cooperative Bachman’s Sparrow. At Owens-Illinois Park in Windsor we saw four distant Laughing Gulls and one adult Bald Eagle, plus a bonus, two or three Limpkins drawn to the area by an abundance of exotic apple snails. Because we’d spent so much time in the first two locations, Powers Park and Palm Point were struck from the itinerary and we went directly to La Chua. There we had mixed luck: just about everyone saw the Whooping Cranes, Roseate Spoonbills, Great White Heron (non-countable), Least Bitterns, Purple Gallinules, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, and lingering Blue-winged Teal and American Coots, but only some of us saw the Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Northern Bobwhite, Common Ground-Dove, and Orchard Oriole, and we never found the Yellow-breasted Chat at all. I think most of us ended the field trip with 50-55 species on our lists.

You can read Katherine Edison’s account of the morning, with photos, here.

On Saturday afternoon I drove out to Cellon Creek Boulevard, which has always been a good place to find, in a single spot, several birds that can be hard to see in summer. I discovered that a new fence had been put up near the generating station, barring access to the brushy edges at the top of the hill. Still, I saw most of what I’d come for: American Kestrel, Eastern Kingbird, Killdeer, Red-headed Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Purple Martin, Eastern Meadowlark, and Loggerhead Shrike. Northern Bobwhites called but never showed themselves, Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites sailed over the treeline on the far side of the pasture, and, rather surprisingly, a flock of 17 Laughing Gulls flew past.

In past years I expected to find Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Common Ground-Doves there as well, but neither showed up this year. A couple of people told me later that I could see Rough-wingeds at the Hague Dairy, and on eBird I noticed that John Martin got 14 of them there on Sunday, probably two or three family groups. If the young have already fledged, they’ll be leaving soon, so get out there and add them to your June Challenge list while you can.

Carol Huang emailed earlier today to tell me that she’d found a Northern Flicker and Red-headed Woodpeckers at Northeast Park on NE 16th Avenue a little east of Main Street. Flickers are rare summer residents in Alachua County, and Northeast Park and Morningside Nature Center are about the only places where they can reliably be found.

And you can see Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at the Red Lobster Pond. Only two remained on Sunday morning.

Finally, a little business. Gmail seems to have a limit of 500 addresses to which it will send any given email, and we’re getting close. I know that a fair proportion of the 497 addresses on this mailing list go to UF students who have moved on, people who have lost interest, and others who just expected something different when they signed up. So if you’d like to continue to receive the Alachua County birding reports, please send an email to let me know that – something simple, like “Keep me on the list” or “You are the wind beneath my wings.” I’ll delete the addresses of those who don’t respond, and that should reduce the mailing list to a Gmail-friendly 300-400 addresses. Okay? Okay! I’ll repeat this request twice more, for those who miss it the first and second times.