Thursday 30 April 2015

Messy Sky

Couple of hours to myself up t'Ings last night. After running the gauntlet of the car park massive, headed round to Swantail. Not much going on though enjoyed the solitude, shared with a handful of Reed Warblers, my first for the year. Nice views of Barn Owls and a mousing Fox bouncing around by the nunnery. Did quite a bit of cloud-base watching, hoping for a flyover skua caught up in the squalls, but no such luck. Quite mesmerising though, I should do it more often. Oh, and I had a Red Kite up over Storwood. How I have become blase about these spectacular, rangy raptors!

Swantail Ings.

Dad rock: The Reserves Reunion 2015

Oh dear, we are looking old, but we still rock!

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Florida Family Birding #2

2 April 2015 - Everglades and Marco Island
Up at the crack of dawn, I went up to Route 41 to check out some scrapes by the roadside I had seen on the way back yesterday. Herons and egrets and c250 White Pelicans were pouring out of a huge roost in the distance and flying off in all directions - impressive stuff. A couple of Northern Harriers worked the marshes in the early morning light and my first Common Yellowthroats sang from the cattails. On the nearest scrape I got a pleasant surprise in the form of a Mottled Duck, making up for it's rather unimpressive, Mallard-like appearance with it's scarcity. Much more handsome Blue-winged Teals dabbled in the shallows with the American Coots, whilst Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilts waded in the water.

I headed next to the Fakahatchee Strand reserve. Here I had brief views of Lincoln's Sparrows which were very skulking on the edge of the lake, Northern Parula, Carolina Wren, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers etc.

After picking up the gang, we headed for Marco Island on the Gulf Coast. We popped into Port of the Islands a rather soul-less estate built around a marina, but was delighted that it paid off with our first sighting of a West Indian Manatee, which surfaced to breath every so often, Hardly inspiring views and the kids were not at all impressed, but it was a sighting nevertheless. Apparently, manatees winter here in good numbers, but they are starting to disperse now. Also here were plenty of Purple Martins.

Tigertail Beach, Marco Island

This sounded like a good bet to combine some birding with a reputedly cracking beach and it didn't disappoint. Arriving late morning it was already scorchio and the gorgeous white sand beach did not help, reflecting the blazing sun in our faces. We waded through the big lagoon and on to the beach, noting great views of Wilson's Plover, Willet, Reddish Egret and a Magnificent Frigatebird overhead as we went.  Once the gang were enjoying the sea, I went for a walk to see if I could find some waders. This proved to be quite good, though I failed to find any Piping Plovers. There were loads of people around which is possibly why. More Wilson's Plovers plus small flocks of roosting waders were present, including Short-billed Dowitchers, Grey Plovers, Dunlins and more Willets. A few Fish Crows flew over. A few Sandwich (Cabot's) Terns went past out at sea along with some huge Royal Terns. Once we had had enough sun and fun, we took the ranger's advice and went three stop signs up the road and spotted the roped off area in a nearby grassy plot. There, atop a little wooden perch was a Florida Burrowing Owl! Great. We watched quietly from the car before an American family pulled up behind us, piled out and walked straight up to the rope. The owls - there were in fact a pair, were not in the least bit bothered by the people, so we jumped out and went for a closer look. Corking! The birds were very happy, presumably used to people stopping for a look. At one point a Loggerhead Shrike flew in and divebombed one of the owls, which was cool.

3 April - Fred C Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area and Casey Key
We checked out of Everglades City and headed west then north up the Gulf Coast. Mid-morning we arrived at Babcock/Webb a rather strange combo of hunting reserve and wildlife site, which is not particularly unusual in Florida. The site is a large area of wetland and slash pine forest with open grassy meadows. It is well-known as a good spot to look for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, though I was not really expecting much chance due to other birders failing to find them apart from at dawn and dusk. This species is rare and has a restricted range and lives in loose colonies in these open pine forests. It was worth a try as we were driving past, so we headed in to see what we could find.

There was quite a lot of singing going on, some of which I tracked down to the local Pine Warblers, plus another more elusive singer that was probably Bachman's Sparrows. Shortly, I picked up a woodpecker - Wow! a Red-cockaded! Well, that was easy I thought. The bird worked the pine trunks picking off bark and showing really well. It was still present ten minutes later when the kids turned up and we all managed good views. Nearby, a couple of dinky Brown-headed Nuthatches were bobbing around and a pair of absolutely belting Eastern Bluebirds gave great views but flew off every time I tried to get a photo. They were simply stunning. I realised quite a few trees had white rings painted round their trunks and these signified the RC Woodpeckers' nesting sites. We did a loop around the dirt tracks, saw a few Alligators, a pair of Wood Ducks and a couple of soaring Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Pine Warbler

Happy with our success, we headed up the highway to Casey Key, in time for an afternoon swim and for me to add American Oystercatcher to my life list!

Sunday 26 April 2015

My Old Patch

Nipped to Grafham Water, Cambs yesterday before the band reunion in Suffolk. Delighted to bump into my old mate Mark Hawkes at Mander CP and thrilled to see c30 Arctic Terns dipping and swerving over the Res. One of the highlights of Grafham springs was the occasional visit by these uber-migrants, so to pop in when some were present was pretty lucky.

As the Somerset Hudsonian Godwit had done a bunk, I had another visit to Grafham this morning. Conditions looked good, with murky overcastness and a light northwesterly blowing, plus a hint of drizzle around my ears. No sign of any Ring Ouzels by the old fave spot, but I spied three drake Common Scoters distantly off the lagoons - nice! Further on, a small flock of small waders proved to be two Sanderling and six Dunlins on closer inspection. A whistle or seven and a Whimbrel bombed overhead and off east. This was proving to be great! Lots of common migrants around, with Yellow Wagtails cavorting around the dam, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats singing heartily from the scrub. Down to Mander and at least ten Arctic Terns were with a similar number of Common Terns. The Arctics were joining the Commons on the boom allowing some great views. Grafham Water at its best - brilliant! Why did I ever leave?!

Goodbye little pup

On Friday Willow died. Our lovely, beautifully-natured lab who had been with us since 2007 finally lost her battle with cancer. We will all miss her.  (Below: Willow at Grafham Water in 2008).

Wednesday 15 April 2015


Went down to Wheldrake Ings this evening and after a pleasant migrant filled stroll, found myself looking over the Refuge for a Garganey or maybe the returning Brent Goose.
Anyway, I soon picked up a pair of waders one of which was clearly a Redshank and the other, remarkably a Lesser Yellowlegs! What?! I had been watching both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs last Thursday in Florida which was handy I suppose and it was immediately obvious to me what the bird was much to my own disbelief. The small, slender long-winged shape, all dark fine bill, dark brown and white plumage meant despite my nerves and excitement the ID was fairly straightforward. After a few minutes, a second Redshank appeared and chased the Legs off, which flew low north towards Swantail, calling. In flight, the plain wings and a small white rump patch were noted, as well as projecting feet. I lost the bird behind willows but could hear it calling like a higher pitched Greenshank I suppose. I scooted down to Swantail but failed to refind it, so 20 minutes or so later i went back to the original spot and a few moments later I heard the bird calling from over the refuge and it came across low and landed out of sight on the near edge behind the grass. A few minutes before Andy Walker arrived and it took flight again, off towards Swantail calling as before. This time I failed to refind it as it didn't seem to come back on to the refuge which was a bit gutting. Within half an hour the light had gone and that was that. I hope somebody refinds this tomorrow as I won't be able to get there until Friday at the earliest.
During all the panic, a Yellow Wag flew over, a Sedge Warbler sang noisily from the reedbed and plenty of House and Sand Martins and a few Swallows were over the pool.
After birding Wheldrake since 1981 this is by far the best bird I have been lucky enough to find here. Hopefully it won't be as long until the next one!

One of the many Florida Lesser Legs seen a week or so ago.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Florida Family Birding #1

To celebrate our 21st birthdays at the end of last year (well, 40ths), we booked a fly drive to Florida to hunt down giant rodents for the kids and some long sought-after birds and other wildlife for me. Conveniently, a trip to Cuba a few years back meant that I didn't 'need' much of the rare and scarce that southern Florida turns up, so I could concentrate on some of the commoner Eastern US species I had not seen before, plus one or two of the state specialities and other critters, whilst having a bit of a relax and fun with the family. This was never going to be a hardcore birding trip, but shows what can be achieved with a rather lazy attitude to planning, plus a few early morning walks and convenient 'lunch stops' in suitable spots, whilst ensuring the family has a cracking time.

Swallow-tailed Kite - logo of the Birding Trail and one of the main highlights of the trip

Essential to the success of the trip was a very understanding wife, patient kids and the excellent Great Florida Birding Trail website (and subsequently leaflet I got given). I used the Sibley Guide to birds of Eastern North America and the reasonably old but still pretty useful 'A Birder's Guide to Florida' by Bill Pranty. Apart from the GFBT website, I found it difficult to find much of use on the web. The rare bird alert service is useful, particularly if you want to check out tropical overshoots on the keys such as Key West Quail Dove and LaSagra's Flycatcher.

Our trip involved a Virgin Atlantic flight from London Heathrow to Miami, with car rental through Alamo. I would recommend this package. We booked our accommodation in advance through the internet without any trouble, either directly or through Expedia.

Being the end of the dry season we saw no mosquitoes hardly.  Most sites visited had good infrastructure, with car parks, marked trails, whilst some had viewpoints, toilets and interpretation. All sites were marked with brown Trail signs - see above.

29-30 March 2015:
Key Largo
A stroll around the environs of the apartment near the sweetly named Lake Surprise got my eye and ear in with much of the common stuff we would see over the fortnight, including Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Common Ground Dove, Northern Flicker, Northern Mockingbird, Palm Warbler, Common Grackle and the naturalised Common Myna. Highlights were a single Magnificent Frigatebird and a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins.

Palm warbler. The commonest warbler, seen in all habitats, regularly dipping it's tail, like a Chiffchaff. Quite confiding and calling a standard 'chip'.

Dagny Johnson Botanical Park, Key Largo
Meant to be a great site for Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-whiskered Vireo, White-crowned Pigeon and migrant warblers, but proved to be a bit disappointing on both visits, though the middle of the day and dusk are probably not the best times to be birding! An easy site to bird, with toilets and marked trails, again, enjoyed adding new species here including the Florida subspecies of Prairie Warbler, Grey Catbird, Northern Cardinal, White-eyed Vireo and White Ibis. Migrants included three American Herring Gulls and a Cooper's Hawk overhead and a stunning male Cape May Warbler.

Prairie Warbler. This is presumably the resident Florida subspecies paludicola though this is far from certain.

Grey Catbird. Fairly skulking, but easier to see than I would have thought and once the obvious calls are sussed, noted as a pretty common species.

One of the lakes in Dagny Johnson which held little apart from Pied-billed Grebes.

John Pennekamp State Park
We didn't really explore this large touristy site as we mainly accessed it to go out to the coral reef offshore. Highlights from this site included Atlantic Green Turtle,  Great White Heron (white variant of Great Blue Heron), Bottlenose Dolphins, plus more new stuff such as Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Royal Tern, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-winged Blackbird. More unexpected were three Northern Gannets over the reef.

Great White Heron. Really a Great Blue Heron, this white variant is common in the Keys and we saw a few in the Everglades also.

Great Crested Fly - very common and conspicuous throughout the area.

In the evening of the 30th, there was a bit of migrant passage, with Purple Martin and Barn and Tree Swallows moving north, plus a Turnstone, Ring-billed Gull and Black-crowned Night Heron by the apartment new for the trip list.

31 March - Everglades National Park

We left Key Largo early on and headed north then west into the Everglades. The trip was quite productive, with Northern Harrier, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker and Loggerhead Shrike from the car as well as a tantalising glimpse of a Swallow-tailed Kite over the sawgrass. Sadly, we couldn't stop as we were on the highway.

Shark Valley
The strangely-named Shark Valley was our first introduction to Everglades birding and didn't disappoint. We did the 17 mile tram ride down to the observation tower, which was well worth it. You can't drive yourself and in the heat with no shade it would be a bit of a killer to cycle or walk.

Though very touristy, the guide was a solid naturalist and gave us a great introduction to the landscape of sawgrass plains interspersed with hammocks of trees and scrub growing on depressions or pinnacles of limestone, and the wildlife of the Everglades.

Plenty of Gators about, plus another distant glimpse of a Swallow-tailed Kite and also a distant Snail Kite, white tail band gleaming in the sun. Plenty of Black Vultures here which would become a common site throughout, plus Boat-tailed Grackles which seem common in the marshes, a cracking Limpkin, American Purple Gallinule, several Wood Storks, Anhinga and all the common herons (Green, Little Blue, Tricoloured, Great Blue, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret).

Wood Storks and Glossy and White Ibis. Wood Storks are really suffering from water abstraction by farmers, which is reducing the water levels drastically in the marshes and their numbers are plummeting. The abstraction also causes saline water to be sucked in to the Everglades from the sea damaging the ecosystem.


Drive to Everglades City
We did the Loop Road 94 off the SR41 just west of Shark Valley, but there were no views over the landscape, as trees grew either side of the road all the way. We passed by in the middle of the afternoon when it was hot so saw very little but this would be certainly worth a look early in the morning. A little further down the 41 west of Monroe Station we picked up a Swallow-tailed Kite over the road, so pulled into the aptly-named Birdon Road and stopped. For the next 20 minutes we were treated to the awesome sight of four of these spectacular raptors cruising overhead picking up dragonflies in flight and eating them on the wing like giant pied Hobbies.

Swallow-tailed Kites. These birds spend the winter in South America and will have only recently arrived back in Florida. The adults have long tail streamers so presumably the last photo is of a first summer bird.

A bird I had longed to see, to get these views was just great and I lost myself in watching them, so much so that I nearly trod on a large snake that had slithered out on to the trail. On closer inspection it proved to be a three foot long Cottonmouth, one of Florida's venomous species, so I am glad I didn't tread on it!

Cottonmouth. So named because it has a gleaming white mouth which it uses to ward off would-be attackers.

We arrived in Everglades City deep in the heart of the swamp by teatime. The usual birds were around including stacks of Ospreys. The sound of their piping was a constant background noise and some were nesting on platforms in people's yards! Other stuff of note were American White Pelican, three Pileated Woodpeckers on one telegraph pole, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Purple Martin and Kildeer.

1 April:
Wagonwheel Road Loop
This loop runs north of the 41 east of the turn to Everglades City and includes Birdon Road mentioned earlier. It was fairly quiet along the wooded sections, but the marshland at the north end was more interesting, where I added Marsh Wren, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark and Eastern Kingbird, as well as this rather smart Great White Heron.

Big Cypress Bend (part of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve)
This small reserve lies just west of the turn for Everglades City on the north side of the 41. It has a car park, toilets and a half mile boardwalk through superb large cypress hammock to a shady pool full of Alligators. Arriving at lunchtime was again not the best, but it was still pretty good with adult Bald Eagle overhead, several Northern Parulas singing, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Black and White Warbler and best of all, a showy Louisiana Waterthrush around the pool at the end of the boardwalk. This is an uncommon migrant in southern Florida and I am pretty sure of the ID based on a big broad super and sparse underpart streaking etc.

Louisiana Waterthrush, hanging out by the water in Florida.

More to follow...