Random Space Coast shots

Arthur and I had a blast at the 2012 Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival, our first. I had wanted to attend the festival for years but we only got the chance this year, about 6 months after moving to central Florida. Since we’re semi-local, for the most part we eschewed the field trips aimed at finding Florida specialties. Instead we attended trips to lesser-known spots and classroom presentations focused on local wildlife with which we are still becoming acquainted. We had a great time meeting new friends (although I am disappointed that I managed to miss meeting several online friends who were at the festival) and birding the Space Coast of our new home state. Here are some random photos from the festival.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlark @ St Johns NWR, Black Rail trip, January 25

Looking for Black Rails
Looking for Black Rails @ St Johns NWR, Black Rail trip, January 25

Birding Hatbill Road
Birding Hatbill Road, North Brevard Hotspots trip, January 26

Richard Crossley
Richard Crossley signing his ID Guide, January 27 [photo by Arthur de Wolf]

Golden Silk Orb-weaver
Female Golden Silk Orb-weaver @ Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, Forest Biodiversity Hike, January 28

Gopher Tortoise
Captive Gopher Tortoise @ Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, Forest Biodiversity Hike, January 28

GHOW on old OSPR nest
Great Horned Owl sitting on an old Osprey nest @ Merritt Island NWR, January 28

Corn Snake
Me with a Corn Snake, Cold-Blooded Critters presentation, January 28

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“422 photos”

I became ill shortly after the Gull Fly-in on Thursday night (NOT from the gull-watching, though!) and I continued to feel green all day Friday. I was so incredibly sad to have to miss an entire day of the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival – what a lousy time to get sick! I missed a field trip and a few classroom presentations and I was so bummed.

I felt like myself again on Saturday and had a great day at the festival. And as a consolation to missing Friday, Arthur and I signed up for an extra day, Sunday. Our first presentation wasn’t until 10am Sunday morning, so we decided to make a rather mad dash to Merritt Island NWR and take a spin around Black Point Wildlife Drive.

It was incredibly birdy, and it was also quite naturally crowded with birders. We had a hard time getting off the main road because of a gaper’s block right at the entrance. A mixed flock of White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and others were delighting several cars-full of birders.

Roseate Spoonbill

We squeaked along, delighting in the delight of all the out-of-state birders gawking at Florida specialties. All along the road we came across clumps of birders standing on the road, looking at and photographing great birds. We pressed on, slow but steady. Once we crept by a pair of photographers pointing their cameras into a ditch close to the road. Arthur looked down as we slowly passed and whispered to me, “Bittern!” I pulled over and we carefully, quietly walked towards the photographers to get a look at the American Bittern. My first view was like this.

American Bittern

Normally I would be ecstatic to take such a photo of an American Bittern with my point-and-shoot Canon. But as we watched, the bittern stepped out from behind the reeds to hunt. Check out the motion in the animated GIF below; the bird moved its entire body but the head stayed perfectly still!

American Bittern

American Bittern

We watched it for perhaps five minutes before it caught a tiny snake, ate it, and then headed back into the reeds and out of view.

American Bittern

American Bittern

American Bittern

After it disappeared, one of the photographers remarked to no one in particular: “422 photos!” That’s a lot of photos of a very cooperative and beautiful American Bittern. I’m sure at least 421 of them were better than mine, but I’m thrilled with what I got anyway. I hope you like them, too.

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Bird-a-Day week 5

Now that I’ve made it into February in the Bird-a-Day Challenge, I thought I’d start posting semi-regular updates as the weeks roll on. Since my last update on January 25th, I’ve added 11 birds, three of which were dreaded yard birds.

04-FEB-12 Killdeer Gemini Springs
03-FEB-12 Ruby-throated Hummingbird yard
02-FEB-12 Northern Harrier Gemini Springs
01-FEB-12 Bufflehead Kennedy Space Center
31-JAN-12 Palm Warbler yard
30-JAN-12 Eastern Phoebe Spring-to-spring Trail
29-JAN-12 Painted Bunting Merritt Island NWR
28-JAN-12 Eurasian Wigeon Merritt Island NWR
27-JAN-12 Common Grackle yard
26-JAN-12 California Gull Frank Rendon Park
25-JAN-12 Black Rail St. Johns NWR

I attended the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival in and around Titusville from January 25th to 29th, which meant I was seeing birds I don’t expect to see here at home and at my local patches – great birds for the challenge!

Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting: January 29

The Black Rail on January 25th was one of at least three heard-only (yes, that’s legal!) birds during a festival field trip designed especially for finding these elusive little rails. Notice the yard bird there in the middle of the festival on January 27th – I was sick and spent most of the day in bed, and when I finally got to peek out the window I didn’t see anything more rare than a flock of Common Grackles. I also got to pick up a good bird on February 1st when Arthur and I took a hastily-planned trip to Kennedy Space Center (to see this) and I found a single female Bufflehead in a small pond during our tour. The rest of the birds were found locally and most are pretty common right now. The Northern Harrier was a nice surprise as I’ve only found them at Gemini Springs on two other occasions since moving here. On to week 6!

California Gull
California Gull: January 26

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Volusia County Gull Spectacle

One of the largest concentrations of gulls found anywhere in the United States occurs on winter afternoons right here in Volusia County, Florida. A stretch of beach in Daytona Beach Shores hosts from 30,000 up to 50,000 loafing gulls as they gather before nightfall. The gulls group together on the beach in the late afternoon before heading just offshore to spend the night. This short video clip featuring Michael Brothers of the Marine Science Center explains this unique phenomenon.

While I find this huge concentration of birds amazing, I have to admit I still haven’t fully embraced the joy of identifying and ageing gulls. Luckily for me, there are birders that are more than up for the challenge. Even luckier, they are happy to share their knowledge with larophobes like me.

During the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival, a team of larophiles, including Michael Brothers and Alvaro Jaramillo, headed the Gull Fly-in based at Frank Rendon Park. Here Arthur and I joined several other birders in happily watching the gulls flying in in huge, unbelievable, remarkable numbers. We watched them gather into gigantic flocks on the beach that must have stretched for several miles.

Before the field trip began, Arthur took this video as we drove along a stretch of beach, heading to the park. This was taken at about 2:45PM, hours before the gull numbers reached their peak.

We birders gathered at the park to watch the gulls fly in before we headed down onto the beach.

Gull flying in

Gulls flying over birders


The most common gulls in the flocks were Ring-billed, Laughing, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed. Among these species, keen eyes can pick out the birds that are different. Shortly after we stepped onto the beach, Alvaro found a California Gull. There was also a Glaucous Gull and a hybrid gull that I didn’t get a chance to see. Another highlight was watching a Pomarine Jaeger harassing gulls out on the water. But the biggest highlight was simply seeing huge numbers of beautiful birds hanging out and doing their thing.

Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull


California Gull
California Gull – notice dark eye, red/black on bill, red gape, brown speckled nape


Birders & gulls


Gull prints

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Gemini Springs, January 2012

During January I found 61 species at Gemini Springs, beating my previous high species count of 58 from December 2011. The complete list is at the bottom of this post.

Wood Stork
Wood Stork; January 2 2012

New birds for me at the park included Hooded Mergansers and Blue-winged Teal (ducks, finally!).

dusk at Gemini Springs
dusk; January 6 2012

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron; January 6 2012

Great Egret
Great Egret; January 6 2012

I started regularly walking a different part of the trail on the west side of DeBary Bayou and found a few birds to be quite predictable there: Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, and Bald Eagle. I had seen the eagle from the paved trail on most previous visits (from his high perch he was hard to miss!) but the others were only visible when taking the new patch of trail.

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe; January 6 2012

Eastern Bluebirds
Eastern Bluebirds; January 12 2012

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle; January 15 2012

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird; January 16 2012

Raided turtle nest
apparently raided turtle nest; January 16 2012

Arthur and I went kayaking in the bayou on January 17th and saw at least three American Bittern plus just tons and tons of herons, egrets, and ibises.

Picking up as we go
bayou trash; January 17 2012

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk; January 18 2012

White-eyed Vireo
White-eyed Vireo; January 18 2012

On January 21st I visited the park for over four hours and explored a new trail I hadn’t walked before. There I found another new bird: Blue-headed Vireo. This part of the trail seemed quiet and as I watched a small mixed flock of warblers and vireos foraging in some trees, I imagined that the part of the park I was in wasn’t visited very often. Just then a group of three mountain-bikers came along the rough trail and surprised me. There are still parts of the park I haven’t visited. I’m glad there are still new spots to explore. Though even the “old” parts hold the mysteries and magic of the great outdoors.

Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow; January 21 2012

Kayakers at Gemini Springs
kayaks on the bayou; January 21 2012

Common Gallinule
Common Gallinule; January 21 2012

Pied-billed Grebes
Pied-billed Grebes; January 21 2012

Limpkin with monster apple snail
Limpkin with apple snail; January 21 2012

new bike rack
woo hoo, a new bike rack; January 21 2012

January bird list, Gemini Springs
Blue-winged Teal – Anas discors
Hooded Merganser – Lophodytes cucullatus
Pied-billed Grebe – Podilymbus podiceps
Wood Stork – Mycteria americana
Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus
Anhinga – Anhinga anhinga
American Bittern – Botaurus lentiginosus
Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias
Great Egret – Ardea alba
Snowy Egret – Egretta thula
Little Blue Heron – Egretta caerulea
Tricolored Heron – Egretta tricolor
Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
Green Heron – Butorides virescens
White Ibis – Eudocimus albus
Glossy Ibis – Plegadis falcinellus
Black Vulture – Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura
Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
Bald Eagle – Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii
Red-shouldered Hawk – Buteo lineatus
Common Gallinule – Gallinula galeata
American Coot – Fulica americana
Limpkin – Aramus guarauna
Sandhill Crane – Grus canadensis
Forster’s Tern – Sterna forsteri
Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura
Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon
Red-bellied Woodpecker – Melanerpes carolinus
Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens
Pileated Woodpecker – Dryocopus pileatus
Eastern Phoebe – Sayornis phoebe
White-eyed Vireo – Vireo griseus
Blue-headed Vireo – Vireo solitarius
Blue Jay – Cyanocitta cristata
American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos
Fish Crow – Corvus ossifragus
Tree Swallow – Tachycineta bicolor
Carolina Chickadee – Poecile carolinensis
Tufted Titmouse – Baeolophus bicolor
Carolina Wren – Thryothorus ludovicianus
House Wren – Troglodytes aedon
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Polioptila caerulea
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula
American Robin – Turdus migratorius
Gray Catbird – Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Mockingbird – Mimus polyglottos
Black-and-white Warbler – Mniotilta varia
Orange-crowned Warbler – Oreothlypis celata
Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas
Palm Warbler – Setophaga palmarum
Pine Warbler – Setophaga pinus
Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata
Chipping Sparrow – Spizella passerina
Savannah Sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis
Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia
Northern Cardinal – Cardinalis cardinalis
Red-winged Blackbird – Agelaius phoeniceus
Common Grackle – Quiscalus quiscula
Boat-tailed Grackle – Quiscalus major

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Target Acquired

Before our first programs at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival last Wednesday, Arthur and I stopped at Riverbreeze Park, which lies on the Indian River in Oak Hill. This was a new spot for us; I found it by browsing recent eBird sightings for Common Loon in Volusia County. We spent some time birding from the fishing pier.

We saw a couple of loons swimming in the water as soon as we arrived. Target acquired!

Common Loon

I also added American White Pelican, Spotted Sandpiper, and Black Skimmer to my Volusia list.

As we left the park, we saw lots of Great Blue Herons moving around their roosting trees. They were getting ready to start their day. Just like us! Next stop: Titusville and the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival!

Great Blue Heron roost

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Bird-a-Day breakthrough

Sedge Wren
January 19th: Sedge Wren at Lake Woodruff NWR

Last year on January 24th I failed to find a new bird in the Bird-a-Day Challenge, and the game was over for the year. Yesterday I didn’t go out birding, so I had to pick something from the day’s yard list. My bird of the day was the American Robin; and so the game continues today with my first day birding at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival.

Strategy dictates that the “best” bird of the day is chosen for the challenge, and that typically means the rarest bird that hasn’t been used for the challenge so far. Very often, it’s difficult to pick which bird to add to the list – and remove from the taking as the game progresses. I picked American Robin yesterday because I had already used up some of the “better” birds previously in the game: Gray Catbird and Cedar Waxwing are much more hit-or-miss than the robin of late. But American Robins don’t spend the summer here (as if I’ll get that far in the game!) and they typically leave earlier in the spring than other winter birds seen yesterday (Yellow-rumped Warbler, Tree Swallow, etc) – so they were the best choice to check off in the challenge.

Black-and-white Warbler
January 4th: Black-and-white Warbler in our yard

So far this game has been messing with my birder mind.

When I found a Limpkin at Lake Monroe Park on January 8th, I knew it was the bird of the day, even though it was early in the morning. I don’t find Limpkins on local outings very often, and I was sure I wouldn’t find anything better later while peeking at yard birds throughout the day. But I had to bike home from Lake Monroe Park first. I found myself half-hoping the Wild Turkeys and Northern Bobwhites would keep out of my view. Those birds were one- or two-hit wonders last year, and though I am ALWAYS on the lookout for them to cross my path, I kinda sorta did NOT want to see them after I got Limpkin in my mind for the day. A birder who doesn’t want to see seldom-found patch birds? Crazy.

January 8th: Limpkin at Lake Monroe Park

Regrets? I’ve had a few. Well, maybe just one.

When I saw a Gray Catbird on the Spring-to-spring Trail back on January 5th, it was my first catbird of the year, and only my third one since moving to Florida. Since recording the Gray Catbird as my bird for that day, I have seen Gray Catbirds six more times; it seems I’m seeing them every third day or so. We even had one in the yard – two different days! A better choice for that day might have been Eastern Bluebird (recorded just 3 times; used later), or maybe Killdeer (also 3). But it’s too late for that!

Eastern Bluebird
January 12th: Eastern Bluebird at Gemini Springs

I’m relieved to get further in the game this year than 2011, even though I didn’t really think it would be too hard. Onward to February!

Baltimore Oriole
January 20th: Baltimore Oriole in our back yard

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Snowy on the beach

I see Snowy Egrets at my local patch all the time, but until earlier this month, I’d never seen one at the beach. Arthur and I were relaxing on New Smyrna Beach on a cool afternoon when we noticed a large white bird heading our way along the waterline. It was hunting, successfully, small fish as it proceeded down the beach. I took a few photos from where we sat; later Arthur got a bit closer for some action shots and a short video. Its hunting style looked a bit frantic, but it was very successful!

Snowy Egret | posing

Snowy Egret | caught!

Snowy Egret | wavy
photo by Arthur de Wolf

Snowy Egret | action

Snowy Egret | intent
photo by Arthur de Wolf

Snowy Egret | spread
photo by Arthur de Wolf

video by Arthur de Wolf

I’ve submitted this post to this week’s Bird Photography Weekly. BPW is a regular collection of user-submitted bird photos from all over the world. The new edition comes out every Sunday. Go have a look at this week’s submissions!

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Arthur and I went kayaking at Gemini Springs this morning. It was probably the birdiest kayak route we’ve ever had, with herons, egrets, ibises, coots, gallinules and others lurking at every bend. We even saw several relatively scarce species: Green Heron; Limpkin; and American Bittern – three of them! Tree Swallows, Belted Kingfishers and Osprey hunted from above. In the four-mile round trip paddle I was surprised to see more Tricolored Herons (over a dozen) and Glossy Ibis (a flock of about 50) than I’ve ever seen before. Numbers of Wood Storks, White Ibis and Snowy Egret were also surprisingly high.

Despite all this abundance I think the most interesting thing I saw all morning was this Great Blue Heron, a very common bird.

Bathing Great Blue Heron

It was standing up to its lower body in the water. Hmm, I never saw a GBHE hunting from this depth before. Interesting.

Bathing Great Blue Heron

After a moment it was clear the bird was not hunting at all. It was bathing! What an operation! Unfortunately I am useless when it comes to taking photos from the kayak. As soon as I reach for my camera, the kayak starts spinning, or moving directly towards the creature I want to photograph. So I only managed this splash action picture before stabilizing my kayak and watching this big beauty proceed with a very active bath.

Bathing Great Blue Heron

Afterwards it stepped up on some nearby reeds to complete its preening duties. I couldn’t find any information about Great Blue Heron bathing habits on BNA Online, bummer. I did find a nice photo series of a Great Blue bathing on Flickr, though. Check it out: Great Blue Heron Bathing.

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Birds at the Central Florida Zoo

For a while I was considering the docent program at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. The zoo, in Sanford, is just about 10 minutes away from where we live. Arthur and I paid our first visit to the zoo earlier this month, to see what the park is like and to see some of the raptors and other birds in the zoo’s programming.

Every Saturday and Sunday there are two scheduled bird programs.

At 11:30AM we saw the “Bird Show” on the Magpie Jay Stage. Here we learned about several different species which were either brought out on the glove or flown. Both Florida native species and birds found elsewhere were included in this program.

Two birds flew. A Harris’s Hawk flew between perches around the audience, and a Red-shouldered Hawk flew between handlers across the spectators.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk

Other birds in this program were the Guira Cuckoo, found throughout South America, and the Black-throated Magpie-jay, found in Mexico.

Black-throated Magpie-jay
Black-throated Magpie-jay

Black-throated Magpie-jay
The incredibly long tail feathers of the Black-throated Magpie-jay

Guira Cuckoo
Guira Cuckoo

Three birds native to Florida were presented: an Eastern Screech Owl; a Red-tailed Hawk, and the previously-mentioned Red-shouldered Hawk. These three were all permanently non-releasable birds with injuries; the Red-tailed Hawk was originally found in our new hometown of DeBary. I was interested to learn that in our part of Florida, grey phase Eastern Screech Owls are more common than red phase, which is the type in their program. This bird was originally found in the eastern part of Volusia County.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

At 1:00PM we went to the “Raptor Encounter” program, which was a short informal program featuring Ray, a Florida Bald Eagle with a permanent wing injury. The handler was joined by a fellow zookeeper who told us about Bald Eagles in general and about Ray specifically.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle & handler
Bald Eagle and handler

The zoo has a number of other birds on display, though I’ll admit my focus during this visit was mainly on the birds in the educational programs.

Two Bald Eagles were on display in a completely open exhibit; both are non-flighted but we watched them move around with ease among their open-air perching.

Bald Eagles

We also saw three macaws in a different open-air display, including a snoozing Green-winged Macaw.

Green-winged Macaw

The Central Florida Zoo is involved in 11 Species Survival Plans, working on captive breeding critically endangered species, an impressive number for a small institution. Though the zoo is relatively small, we enjoyed our visit. The docent program looks like a good one; unfortunately the timing of the training this winter/spring doesn’t really work out for me / us right now. The training usually takes place twice a year; we may think about it again in the fall!

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