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...

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