Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas Gives Birding The Bird

All this Christmas stuff has really impacted on my birding... in fact I can't remember ever having so much time off work and yet finding so little time to get out in search of ornithological diversions. Oh well, the excessive gluttony just about compensated.
It wasn't all gout-inducing revelry though, I did manage to squeeze a few local walks in; binoculars at the ready. 
I checked out life in the Government House grounds a couple of times. There wasn't too much going on. The regular common birds were much in evidence, both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers, downy woodpeckers, chestnut-backed chickadees, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos, Pacific wrens, etc, etc.

Ross Bay
I managed to fit in quick visits to Ross Bay and Clover Point too. Offshore the usual species were seen in varying numbers including red-necked and horned grebes, common goldeneye, surf scoters, a single greater scaup, all three mergansers, pigeon guillemot, common loon, harlequins and buffleheads, pelagic and double-crested cormorants. Shorebirds were thin on the ground, thanks to the very high tides. I only noted a couple of dunlin along with a handful each of black turnstone and surfbird.

On Saturday morning I had a good stroll around Beacon Hill Park, primarily looking for bushtit/chickadee flocks. Maybe I would find a wintering warbler of some kind - or even the elusive blue-gray gnatcatcher seen there a few weeks ago? No reason why it shouldn't still be around. As it happens, I struggled to locate any decent sized flocks and those few birds I did encounter weren't harbouring any exciting waifs or strays.
Nice to see varied thrushes (always a favourite) mingled in with the many American robins and a few small sparrow flocks gave me something to scrutinize, albeit briefly. 
I spotted at least 4 Eurasian wigeon (3 drakes, 1 duck) among the many American wigeon present on the park pools. A couple of northern shoveler and a small number of ring-necked duck were also on the ponds, along with a billion mallard.

A short and soggy trundle to Harling Point today (Tuesday) revealed a pair of smart long-tailed duck close offshore and a gang of some 15 black-bellied plover but little else of note.

So, it's back to work tomorrow and my near-daily lunchtime dashes to Langford Lake will resume in earnest. I haven't yet seen anything too thrilling there, but it seems to attract a reasonably diverse range of birds from time to time. There have been good numbers of pine siskins there in recent weeks and red crossbills are tolerably frequent. On the water there are usually a few species of wildfowl to be seen and both mew and glaucous-winged gulls come in regularly to bathe. And I have never seen quite as many pied-billed grebes in any one location.

I hope everyone reading this had a jolly old Christmas, and here's to a bird-filled New Year ahead!


Sunday, 18 December 2011

Last Gasp on Gasparilla

Our back yard in Boca Grande, Florida
Friday was our last full day on Planet Florida. The weather continued to be superb, and we opted to stay on Gasparilla and take it easy - especially as it was Satty's birthday. Of course my mind was, as always, slightly on the matter of birds and I was only too aware that despite this being my third visit to the Sunshine State I had still failed to add Carolina wren to my world list. Now, as anyone who knows about birding in Florida this species is, by all accounts, common as the proverbial muck itself. How was I missing them so spectacularly? Today, I was going to try and redeem myself. I listened to various recordings of their calls and songs, and read up once more on the habits of these skulking birds.

After breakfast we decided to explore a region of the Gasparilla Island State Park we'd noticed a few days ago; an area a little off the beaten track where invasive vegetation was being managed. This could just possibly provide the perfect habitat for my quarry... and I hadn't even manipulated the plan for my own benefit!

White ibis
We set off along a barely obvious trail, scattering multiple lizards as we went. An American kestrel was hunting the area and we flushed a red-shouldered hawk. The usual vultures and ospreys drifted overhead, but as for other birds it seemed depserately quiet. Until I heard a curious rasping call, not unlike that of a Bewick's wren. Surely this was my bird? I pished. It rasped. I pished again. It rasped again. I caught a glimpse of a bird moving in the dense tangled vegetation, then it was gone. Drat.
A few metres on, that call again. Once again I began to pish quietly. This time it really did the trick and two birds started calling excitedly back in response. And these were unquestionably Carolina wrens. It took a good few, frustrating seconds but eventually one, then two birds showed well. And what smart looking wrens! Big, bright chunky birds, with wacking great supercilliums, even my non-birder companions were reasonably impressed. They became known immediately, and appropriately, as Satty's birthday wrens.

Florida box turtle
We moved on, and we soon came across a Florida box turtle (actually a non-aquatic terrestrial reptile, and more like a tortoise - pictured). The track shortly petered out and we headed back out of the bush and toward the beach, spotting an ovenbird and common yellowthroat on the way.
On the beach it was the same stuff, white ibis (pictured), willet, ruddy turnstone, Forster's, Royal and Sandwich terns (pictured), etc, and we meandered along enjoying the delightful subtropical climate.

Sandwich tern
After lunch (we sat on a table next to a bunch of identically dressed gun-sporting secret service guys, newly arrived in town as part of the Bush family's detail - Gasparilla is the traditional Christmas destination and both ex-Presidents and their entourages were due any day) the ladies went exploring while I joined Paul on the beach and tried a spot of sea fishing. I was, as I expected, hopeless and I lost more bait and tangled more line than I care to admit...

Later that evening as we headed out to a local restaurant to celebrate Satty's significant birthday we heard an Eastern screech owl, very close but in some pretty dense vegetation. I tried to locate the singing bird with my head lamp but unsurprisingly it eluded my beam. Had we not had a table booked, I may have been tempted to dash back to the house and return with my recorder but I had to leave this particular potential lifer for another time. I know that many North American birders will happily tick a bird on call or song alone, but I'm not in that camp. If I don't see it, I don't count it.
The owl was still calling when we returned a couple of hours later and we could even hear it from the back of the house. Oh well, it's always good to have something to look for should I find myself in Eastern screech owl range again.

Magnificent frigatebird
Jenny and I flew back to Victoria on Saturday afternoon. We spent the morning lazing around the house in Boca Grande. A flock of warblers made up of around 40 yellow-rumped and 20 palm warblers came through, with a single pine warbler and a pair of northern cardinals among them. A fine yellow-bellied sapsucker put in an unexpected appearance in a palm in the back yard and 6 magnificent frigatebirds (male pictured) came over to wave us off.
And the highlight of our journey home was adding great-tailed grackle to the trip list at Houston Airport!
Now, back to reality and the onslaught of the festive period...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Babcock / Webb Birding Tick-Fest...

We got up nice and early on Wednesday morning; destination Babcock / Webb Wildlife Management Area. This huge chunk of land just northwest of Fort Myers, is primarily managed for hunting, but is famous in birding circles as one of Florida's best locations for finding the critically endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
We arrived on site, paid the paltry $3 per person and picked up a map from the reception office, and glanced at the tally of critters so far killed this season. This list included coyotes, racoons, doves and of course, 836 northern bobwhite. As one of the species I'd hoped to see, bobwhites are either so extremely common here that I'll have no trouble locating one, or there are now none left whatsoever...

Here be Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers
We headed to the first red-cockaded woodpecker cluster area - these woodpeckers are sociable birds and nest in close proximity to one another. The clusters are clearly marked by white stripes painted on the trees where the birds' nestholes can be found. Naturally, it's far out of breeding season and odds were somewhat stacked against our chances of finding any 'peckers at this time of year.
Nonetheless. we optimists pulled off the track and had a listen. A northern flicker came through. Then a red-bellied woodpecker stopped by. Then we heard the very un-woodpeckery sound of a red-cockaded as it flew across the track and through the trees. It was followed immediately by a second bird which kindly alighted on a tree right in front of us and showed brilliantly for a couple of minutes before it too vanished off in the distance. Result!
I couldn't believe my luck, barely out of the car for 5 minutes and my target bird was in the bag!  
We then spent the next few hours stopping off at likely looking spots and seeing what we could find.

Little Blue Heron
There were plenty of waterbirds around including little blue herons (pictured), sandhill cranes, wood storks, pied-billed grebes and green herons, great and snowy egrets etc. Glossy ibis made it on to the trip list courtesy of a small group of birds.
There were lots of northern mockingbirds around, as well as many flocks of feeding palm, yellow-rumped and pine warblers all over the place. A bit of pishing brought out some interesting birds including a showy and vocal gray catbird. Blue jays put in appearances, as did eastern phoebes, loggerhead shrikes and smart eastern bluebirds. Hundreds of tree swallows were hawking over the large grassy areas and small lakes.

Brit Birder in FL
Red-shouldered hawks were the commonest raptor seen, plus we spotted occasional Cooper's hawks and northern harriers, as well as the ubiquitous black and turkey vultures.
A few shorebirds were seen in one particularly large wetland area. These included killdeer, and around 70 greater yellowlegs and a single lesser yellowlegs.
Stopping briefly to check out a warbler flock we heard the distinctive 'rubber-duck' calls of another key bird - brown-headed nuthatch. Some careful, if panicked scrutiny of the feeding flock soon revealed one of these diminutive arboreal acrobats, which was soon joined by a second. They gave great views - always a bonus when seeing a lifer!     

Alongside the birds, the park was also teeming with butterflies and dragonflies, plus we came across several alligators (pictured). Paul, as driver, noted racoon and deer crossing the road in front of him, en route.
In several hours we only covered a fraction of the 65,758 acre area, but had seen a huge variety of habitat (and only one vehicle of gun-toting good ol' boys).
I didn't get to see any bobwhites, but hey-ho, they're widespread enough and I like to think that I may well see one somewhere else someday.

We arrived back on Gasparilla mid afternoon and Paul set off to the beach to do some fishing. We all joined him, and as we neared the beach the distinctive hoot of a great horned owl was heard. Jenny, Satty and Paul carried on toward the water, while I dashed off in search of the vocal owl. It didn't take long, and I was soon looking up at a pair of great horned owls sat high in Banyan tree, one calling frequently. Very nice!
Once I joined the others on the beach, I scanned up and down taking in the numerous shorebirds present. Among the familiar willets, sanderlings and black-bellied plovers there were also white ibis, great-blue heron and the usual ring-billed and laughing gulls. As I looked offshore, 3 juvenile northern gannets were making a splash as they repeatedly dived into the water in their unmistakable manner.

This morning Jenny and I spent the morning cycling around the north island. I had wanted to get a good look at the birds on the sand bars near the bridge, so I took my 'scope along with me.
Along the route we encountered the usual palm warblers, mourning doves, Eurasian collared-doves, ospreys, American kestrels and the expected herons, egrets and wood storks. An odd looking dove caught my eye sat on an overhead wire, and stopping to check it out I realised that it was a white-winged dove.
Once we reached the bridge, we were relieved to see that the tide was low enough to expose a few small sandbars and thankfully there were birds feeding on them... scanning through I was pleased to see a good mix of waders; willet, red knot, dunlin, black-bellied plover and semi-palmated plovers. However, the bird I really wanted to find (ever the optimist...) couldn't be seen.

Pelican, skimmers, terns...
We crossed the road and checked out another sandbar on the other side. Brown pelicans, Sandwich terns, Forster's terns, royal terns and black skimmers were all present in good numbers (pictured).
Then I noticed right at the far end of the spit, some smaller birds. One dunlin, 4 semi-palmated plovers, a Wilson's plover and, hello... a pale plover, short bill, orange legs - Bingo! Another world first for me, piping plover. I thought that this might be a long-shot, but it was the very species I was hoping for. Wonderful!
American white pelicans were gliding overhead, while the ever-present ospreys kept us entertained with their nest building and highly successful fishing forays. My first reddish egret of the trip was fishing the shallows, flanked by a little blue heron. A juv bald eagle was sat up in a dead tree.
A sizeable flock of palm warbler were feeding in the same roadside trees as they were a couple of days ago, and once again a single pine warbler and a black-and-white warbler were among them.
We headed back to 'town' and after a cuppa we headed to the beach to catch up with Paul and Satty.

Great horned owl
On the way, we stopped off to see if the great horned owls were still in the big banyan. They were, and we got a few shots of one of the birds as it sat high in the canopy.
On the beach, it was mainly business as usual.
As Jen and I walked along the length of the beach, we encountered more birds as we got further from the developed areas and here we found good numbers of dunlin, western sandpiper and red knot (pictured) as well as the familiar ruddy turnstone and other common tideline dwellers.

Red Knot
Paul's highlight of the day was catching a clear nosed skate, a rather charming fish which, when released, partially buried itself in the sand within inches of the water line. Eventually it realised that this wasn't the best place to be and swam off unharmed, if a little traumatised!  

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

More Florida Birding Highlights...

Hello readers. Well, it's been a touch hectic here in sunny Florida, what with all the relaxing, leisurely birding and my ongoing investigation into the state's microbreweries...

Monday was a bit of a write-off bird-wise as we all headed out to some monster outlet mall to indulge in a spot of rampant pre-Christmas consumerism. As it happens, I did add a few birds to the trip list. Floridian favourites such as loggerhead shrike, red-shouldered hawk, wood stork (pictured) and magnificent frigatebird were all seen en route, but eclipsing these fine aves was a rather fine crested caracara perched up in a roadside tree. Off the top of my head, I think this is the first one I've seen north of Mexico, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it sat there.
Once we got 'home', Jenny, Satty and I headed out to the beach to catch the sunset. Of course, there were willets, ruddy turnstones and sanderling on the beach with ring-billed gulls, laughing gulls and passing royal terns. On our way back in the dusky darkness we heard a great horned owl hooting from the confines of a huge banyan tree.

Tuesday was somewhat more productive on the birding front as me and Jenny, along with Paul and Satty, hired bikes and explored the length of Gasparilla Island, and beyond. As we headed out north along the island on the excellent cyclepath, we frequently stopped to check out the mangroves, bays and assorted interesting looking spots. There were loads of yellow-rumped and palm warblers all along the route, plus we got views of a single common yellowthroat and a dazzling northern cardinal. Both turkey and black vultures, American kestrels, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks and scores of ospreys competed with the white and brown pelicans, various egrets and anhingas for our attention. 
From a small bridge overlooking a shallow bay with exposed sandbars, I could see good numbers of willet, sanderling, black-bellied plover, killdeer and a couple of Wilson's plovers
On the other side of the bridge, another sandbar hosted around 400 black skimmers, plus hundreds of Sandwich and Forster's terns and brown pelicans.
A sizeable flock of feeding warblers were working their way through some roadside trees and, after a little pishing, I was soon surrounded by a horde of palm warblers, and in among them a single pine warbler and smart black-and-white warbler.

On our way, we also saw the lizard pictured here, either consuming a large spider or still sporting its Movember 'tache... (maybe one of my herpetologist pals can identify the reptile?)
After a return to the house for a much deserved cup of tea we cycled down to the south of the island, to the old lighthouse. Brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants were in good supply and a single horned grebe was fishing close to the shore.

On the beach there were good numbers of Sandwich and Forster's terns mixed in with the many laughing gulls (pictured). A bottle-nosed dolphin showed well, passing by just offshore.
The usual shorebirds were present.
We returned the bikes and headed to a bar to sample some local brews and review our plans for the following day... (going in search of a lifer or two - details to follow!)

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Brit Birder Returns To Florida

Spent most of Saturday in transit between Victoria and Fort Myers, Florida. We arrived in darkness and were met by my brother Paul and his wife Satty, who had flown in from the UK the day before.
We headed out to Boca Grande, just to the north of Sanibel Island, where we would be staying for the week. After a few well-earned ales we hit the hay in the early hours.
This morning, I awoke and took in my immediate surroundings. The house backs onto a canal, and is flanked by mangroves. Reasonably interesting! The first bird I heard was a palm warbler, which eventually showed as it made its way through the waterside vegetation.
Within seconds an Eastern phoebe flew in and showed brilliantly, flycatching from the top of a nearby mangrove. Turkey vultures soon appeared overhead and several brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants were seen in the distance. A couple more palm warblers came by, as did a yellow-rumped warbler.

After a leisurely breakfast we strolled into 'town' - a small collection of stores and restaurants - and then on to the beach and back. Birds encountered along the way included American kestrel, Cooper's hawk, mourning dove, common ground dove, red-bellied woodpecker, common loon, willet (pictured), Forster's tern, laughing gull and ringed-billed gull.
Later we took a drive out to the nearest supermarket, passing through some great habitat en route. We saw more pelicans, cormorants, gulls and terns and such, plus added black vulture, white ibis, great-blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, tri-coloured heron, black-crowned night-heron, wood stork, osprey, common grackle and boat-tailed grackle to the trip list.
Maybe I'll get chance to get out into some really good areas for some 'real' birding in the next few days, but given that that's not the sole purpose of this pre-Christmas getaway, I may just have to take what I can get!
I do have plans to get in the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area where there is a relatively healthy population of red-cockaded woodpecker, but whether I'll be able to locate any at this time of year is up for debate. Oh well, I can only give it a go, and hope that I bump into any of the 4 potential ticks that occur in the large preserve...!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Green Gifts from the Nature Conservancy.

There are strings of lights all over downtown, scores of trees have been decked out in decorations aplenty, and we've even posted our Christmas cards before the Canada Post deadline ('tis a season of miracles, after all...).
But let's not forget that it is also the season for giving. And for those who wish to brush aside rampant consumerism there are ethical and actually useful gifts available for you to send to your loved ones.
The Nature Conservancy, along with many other charitable organizations, are offering an array of great gifts that won't cost the earth.
Whether you wish to 'Adopt an Acre' in Costa Rica or Zambia, plant trees in Brazil, contribute to the conservation of vital habitat for the protection of Kirtland's warbler or whooping crane, or wish to give the gift of wild animal adoption, the range of 'green' gifts available on the Nature Conservancy's website is sure to please.
After all, what's better - the knowledge that you're helping protect sea turtles, coral reefs, rhinoceros's and critically endangered habitat or yet another piece of mass-produced crap that will end up in the back of garage or the dump in a couple of years?
See the amazing range of alternative presents at the Nature Conservancy's donations page and sign the pledge at Green Gift Monday.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sanderling Sunday

This morning I spent about 2.5 hours around the Clover Point and Ross Bay area. For much of the visit I was joined by Lynette Brown, a keen birder who recently moved to Victoria, who I had arranged to meet for a spot of coastal birding.

Around the point there were the usual 20 or so black turnstone, a couple of surfbirds, 20ish dunlin (including several feeding on the floating kelp just offshore) and a single sanderling (pictured here with dunlin). There were plenty of ducks present, including good numbers of bufflehead and harlequin. A pair of stunning common merganser, (the male was immaculate, infused with that gorgeous salmon pink as shown by some drakes), were fishing close to the shore while a party of comparatively scruffy red-breasted mergansers foraged close by.
Further out, several surf scoters were seen and a pair of striking long-tailed duck were keeping their distance.
A flotilla of 30 horned grebe made for a spectacular sight, and smaller numbers of red-necked grebes were scattered around along with a few common loons and pigeon guillemots
The gulls at Clover Point were largely comprised of the expected raggle-taggle not-quite glaucous-winged/western variety, although one adult and a third winter showed signs of being dangerously close to pure western gull. A few mew gulls were kicking around close offhsore with many more larids way out, once again silhouetted in the low morning light.
Double-crested and pelagic cormorants were variously sat around on floating logs or fishing here and there.
Despite recent reports, I maintained my inability to locate any rock sandpipers. One of these days...

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Brit Birder Makes Brief Return to Blighty

I've just returned from an unscheduled and brief visit back to North Lancashire. The unfortunate reason for my short journey to the UK was to attend the funeral of my great friend and brother-in-law Mark. I shan't dwell on the circumstances too much here, but I will mention that he had a wonderful woodland burial just over the border in Cumbria. Surrounded by native woodland with roe deer, great-spotted woodpeckers and all manner of wild creatures it is certainly a tranquil and beautiful spot where my sister and all other family and friends will be able to visit and enjoy their memories of one of life's true originals. So long, mate.

Of course, during my whirlwind visit I didn't do any birding but nonetheless one can't help but notice the commoner species, which now seem far less familiar to me.
Fieldfare, song thrush, dunnock, common buzzard, Eurasian kestrel, sparrowhawk, lapwing, Eurasian golden plover and curlew, red knot, great black-backed and black-headed gull, pied and grey wagtails, etc - were all seen casually in passing. It's easy to forget just how apparent and omnipresent birds are back in Britain...

Once I was back on Canadian soil, and compos mentis, I took a short stroll around the Government House grounds just to get some fresh air and refamiliarise myself with the native aves.
Anna's hummingbird, golden-crowned sparrow, northern flicker, downy woodpecker, spotted towhee and both ruby-crowned and golden crowned kinglets were much in evidence. Any birder in BC enviously reading the list of common British birds noted above, just remember that this selection of easy Vancouver Island birds has exactly the same effect on keen birdwatchers from across the pond. It's all a matter of context.
Among the large numbers of 'Oregon' dark-eyed juncos in the grounds was a single 'slate-coloured' bird, the first I've seen here for a while.

Saturday morning I headed out to check my favourite local spots along the Victoria coast. I started out at Clover Point, with optimistic thoughts of rock sandpiper in my head.
Shorebirds-wise it wasn't too exciting; 17 dunlin, 4 surfbird, 3 black-bellied plover, 13 black turnstone and 2 black oystercatcher. In the water there were lots of bufflehead, harlequin ducks and surf scoters as usual. Hooded mergansers (pictured), red-breasted mergansers, red-necked grebes, horned grebes, common goldeneye, pigeon guillemot, rhinoceros auklet, common murre and common loons were also present in varying numbers.
Offshore there were 1000s of gulls, but the low light rendered them as little more than silhouettes; clearly the majority were mew gulls.
A fairly convincing western gull (complete with yellow orbital ring) was among the many mongrel glaucous-wingeds on the point.
Next, I headed round to Harling Point and the Chinese Cemetery.
Here there were no shorebirds at all, but at least I added 7 stunning long-tailed ducks and a red-throated loon to the day list. Some murrelets were bombing around way offshore, but again they were just silhouettes making confident ID somewhat tricky.
A quick stop at Oak Bay Marina revealed a few more dunlin, black-bellied plovers, black turnstone, the usual seaducks, including 2 more long-tailed duck, and alcids plus a bald eagle and 9 killdeer.
I wound up at Cattle Point where the high tide and dog walkers had the combined effect of clearing the place out of birds. Just a few black turnstone, oystercatchers, American wigeon and what-have-you provided me with stuff to sift through.