Sunday, April 25, 2010

Florida: Sea of grass

After the Smooth-billed Ani flew into the cattails we walked around the boardwalk a little more. We again saw all of our usual herons including a trio of Yellow-crowned Night-herons (Nyctanassa violacea). Apparently, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is the more common night heron in the Everglades park, however we saw no adult birds. Conversely, we saw adult Black-crowned Night-Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) but no juveniles Black-crowned. Maybe the adult Yellow-crowned were on the nest.

We saw Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) essentially everywhere we went and I took photos of all those within reach. In the end, this Anhinga with wings typically spread and tail flared was probably the best. We watched the bird swimming and then it hopped up in the grass to groom and dry off.

At the Royal Palms visitor center I took a spin around the gift shop and picked out a polo shirt and looked over the books - many about the history of the Everglades. Of these the 1947 The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas caught my eye. I recalled reading about Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who died in 1998 at the age of 108, as the greatest champion the Everglades ever had. In the brief time we spent in the Everglades National Park it was easy to see what a huge, beautiful and unique place it is. I purchased the book.

Not far from the Royal Palms visitor center we stopped for a phone call I needed to take. While I was talking on the phone the others of our group found a perched Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). This is a bird that I have wanted to see for a very long time. I finished my call unaware of the bird they had found and was called to join the rest of the group. Bill called out, "Swallow-tailed Kite in the scope." I broke into a run. There it was, in the spotting scope, a beautiful bird perched high and preening in a slash pine tree. Thrilling!

Tuesday, the 20th, was our sixth day of birding and was a big driving day. Our next stop was Marco Island for some shorebird finds. Bill has friends here and we met up with them at Tiger Tail Beach. We removed our shoes and waded across a shallow channel to get closer to the birds on the opposite shore and also to explore the ocean front beach. The water was as warm as bath water. The beach was bright white and made of broken shells - tough on a tender foot.

Life bird for me, we saw Wilson's Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia) in a variety of plumages. The above is still in basic plumage and the bird below has transitioned to its alternate plumage. Wilson's Plovers are breeding birds in Florida and an area of the beach was roped off for them and other breeding birds.

We saw Least Terns (Sternulla antillarum) in a variety of locations - completely charming and noisy birds. Two birds flying and fishing together make enough chattering to sound like several birds. The bird above waited patiently on the beach while her partner caught and then flew to her and offered her the fish. Least Terns are also breeding birds here, but I don't think they nest on the beach. Rather, I think they prefer flat-topped roofs. At least this is their preferred nesting location in Maryland.

Our walk back across the channel in a rising tide left us with wet chothing and so the day ended with checking into a Naples hotel and a quick shower before dinner at a restaurant across the street.

Our first stop on Wednesday morning, the 21st, was at the National Audubon sanctuary Corkscrew Swamp. If you visit here, remember to take your Audubon membership card - the entry fee is reduced for members. I don't think of North America as having jungles, but Corkscrew felt like a jungle. Overall, it was quiet for birds. There were no neotropical migrants, except for a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) on nest. We saw a female Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) at a feeder, but missed her flamboyant counterpart. We also missed out on seeing Shiny Cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) here. However, the trip was worth it for the view from the observation tower of several Swallow-tailed Kites flying. We had seen the perched bird and a couple of others flying from the car window the day before, but this is the first time I had a chance to really see them in flight - described by every field guide as incredibly graceful. Dreadful as it is, this is my best photograph to remember the experience.

Several years ago I read the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I know absolutely nothing about orchids but I thought the book was a page turner. At some point the topic came up of hoping to see some orchids. As it turned out Hope and Jim Bradley were also orchid enthusiasts. Susan Orlean's book is a Florida roundabout adventure centered on her search for the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). Her book ends and, while she sees many orchids, she never does see the ethereal Ghost Orchid. Prior to the day of our visit to Corkscrew we had heard that a Ghost Orchid was in bloom there and we eagerly anticipated seeing the bloom. By this time I had talked about and recommended the book. When we arrived at Corkscrew we learned that the Ghost Orchid had not been in bloom for a couple of weeks. We did get to see where it had bloomed - high up in a very tall tree. Quite anticlimatic!

I posted my blog link on the birding list serves in Michigan and it was seen by Anina Bachrach of Dearborn, Michigan and a "snowbird" in Florida during the winter months. Anina visited Corkscrew prior to our visit. She saw the Ghost Orchid bloom and was able to take the photo above which was, in her own words, "three football fields away." I think Anina's photo is quite good, especially since I saw for myself how high up the flower was. I have added the photo above with Anina's permission and also still recommend The Orchid Thief for good reading.

The route this day took us by the Archbold Biological Station where the research that split the Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) from the Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) was completed. We stopped here for lunch at one of their picnic tables where we saw only Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata). Following lunch we found the above bird on the main road. If you enlarge this image you will see a red band on the bird's left leg. I just love the color of this bird.

We happened to drive by new-appearing rainwater retention ponds built around a dike system and decided to stop for a quick look. Relatively speaking, we had not seen many Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea). This bird was feeding around rain-flooded fields that surrounded the ponds.

Our next stop took us to the Three Lakes Prairie in the Kissimmee Lake area. We stopped first at Lake Jackson to look unsuccessfully for Snail Kites. Enroute to Lake Marian, our next kite search location, we saw this adult Bald Eagle (Haliacetus leucocephalus) on a very large nest. Her partner was perched in a nearby tree. We took a short hike though woods leading to an observation tower on Lake Marian. The woods had grown up around the observation tower so it was not the view we had hoped for. We heard a Barred Owl hooting.

Arriving back at the van, we were about to load up when Felix whispered for us the location of a perched Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway). The above photo makes the bird seem as if it was in the wide open. But it was actually well camouflaged from the position of our car. It blended in with the trees in which it was perched. We had been seeing these birds in quick, unsatisfactory flybys from the car windows. I don't recall ever having seen a perched caracara before - at least not one this satisfying. Bill set up the scope and we got very close views and the bird cooperated to allow us to take numerous photos. Finally, the bird left this perch to fly a short distance behind to scuffle with an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) who was perched nearby and eating something.

The Osprey escaped with its meal.

Another pass by Lake Toho... in Chisholm County Park to look, again unsuccessfully, for Snail Kite and dinner at a restaurant on the lake called Crabby Bill's ended a very long day. When we arrived at the hotel for our final night in Florida, I honestly cannot recall a time when I felt more tired. I'm sure I have felt more tired, I just can't remember when that would have been.

Coming next: Florida: birding down to the wire.

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