Fall Has Fell

“Ooohhh!” “Aaahhh!”

That’s an exact quote from our first sighting of a northeastern American forest in a riot of autumn color. Gini and I are native Floridians and as such we only knew two seasons:  green and brown. Our marriage some 48 years ago began a journey which has taken us many places and we have been fortunate to have experienced a world full of beauty. The forest near Syracuse, New York that fall day is indelibly etched in our mind’s album of special memories. Who knew so many different colors could be found on trees?

As our current year transitions from “green” to “brown”, we realized Mother Nature provides us with a sense of the colorful autumn our northern neighbors enjoy each year. The miracle of avian migration brings a myriad of colors fluttering on the wind’s breath to alight in our trees, on our lakes and along our roadsides and all we have to do is take the time to observe. Our time for exploring this year has been very limited but we are now almost back to what we think is “normal” and are attempting to make up for lost time.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been out and about and have been blessed with extraordinarily pleasant weather. Cool mornings, bright blue skies and balmy afternoons. A little water, egg salad sandwiches and fresh oranges are tossed into the truck along with about 500 pounds of optics and off we go! Cocooned in the vehicle with Gini as we re-discover old haunts and search for new seldom-traveled roads is the best life could offer. How lucky I am!!

Ride with us for awhile and enjoy a little fall birding in central Florida’s forests, marshes, lakes and fields.

 

A Snowy Egret concentrates on a potential meal hiding under the surface. As with many wading birds, the egret stirs the mud with a foot and hopes something delicious will appear.

Circle B Bar Reserve

 

Dagger-like beaks help Anhingas spear a fish dinner. In this case, the Anhinga is helping to rid Florida’s waters of an invasive catfish species. Suckermouth armored catfish, Pterygoplichthys disjunctivus, were likely introduced by escapes from tropical fish farms and aquarium owners dumping unwanted individuals into nearby waters. The overall impact of the species is unknown but in some areas it has disrupted native fish populations. Also, their nesting habit of burrowing into banks has caused siltation and erosion.

Circle B Bar Reserve

 

Announcing his presence to the entire marsh, a Tricolored Heron slowly flaps his way to a likely feeding spot.

Circle B Bar Reserve

 

One of the lakes near our house, Lake Parker, has a small population of Caspian and Royal Terns most of the year. This Royal Tern is distinguished from the similar Caspian by a  yellow-orange beak (as opposed to the red of the Caspian), a white forehead during non-breeding season (the Caspian has black or at least gray smudges) and the underside of the primaries are light (the Caspian’s are dark).

Lake Parker

 

Our area maintains a robust population of Bald Eagles all year. During fall and winter migration, the eagle population soars with winter visitors. Hard to tell if this is a native or “snow bird”, but he/she was curious about what I was up to.

Sam Keen Road

 

Fish Hawk is what many folks call the Osprey. It’s a very apt name as they are excellent at securing a finny feast for themselves and their families.

East Lake Parker

 

Our mild weather allows many insects to breed multiple times during the year. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail gathering nectar from a Pickerelweed bloom just adds another dimension of color to our day.

Avon Park Cutoff Road Sod Fields

 

This European Starling is quite comfortable in a woodpecker cavity, at least until spring when woodpeckers will likely drive them from the area. All of the starlings in North America apparently descend from 100 individuals which were released in New York’s Central Park in the 1890’s. It seems a group of devoted Shakespeare fans wanted Americans to enjoy the birds mentioned in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Now there are estimated to be over 200 million European Starlings in North America and NOT everyone is overjoyed with this result! (Attempts to release other species mentioned by Shakespeare were not successful.)

Avon Park Cutoff Road Sod Fields

 

At the edge of a large commercial sod field which can hold large numbers of shorebirds during migration, a quartet of Lesser Yellowlegs finds shelter and nice, soft mud for probing along a small pond.

Avon Park Cutoff Road Sod Fields

 

During the past several days, Eastern Phoebes have begun to appear on almost every fence wire, tree snag and even our roadside mail box. They do not breed in our area and it’s a joy to see the sleek little flycatchers with their constantly pumping tails.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

The male Common Yellowthroat is a noisy, pugnacious and brightly adorned resident. The more subtly hued and demure female can easily be overlooked. Thankfully, this little lady posed for a moment before returning to the weedy undergrowth.

Cox Road

 

“Drink-your-tea.” The Eastern Towhee’s clear call resounds from all around us as we slowly drive along a dirt road with an orange grove on one side and a field of scrub oak on the other.

Eastern Towhee Call

Cox Road

 

Another butterfly taking advantage of Florida’s version of autumn, a Long-tailed Skipper.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

The female Summer Tanager is not as immediately recognizable as the all-red male, but she has a beauty all her own.

Lake Parker Park

 

We may not have bright yellow, red and orange leaves during the fall, but it sure seems colorful when we spot something like this Prairie Warbler!

Sam Keen Road

 

One of the most numerous warblers during fall migration is the Palm Warbler. The little birds with the constantly bobbing tail seems to be everywhere once they arrive.

Tenoroc-Bridgewater

 

Although the Pine Warbler is a year-round resident here, fall migrants swell the population significantly. These tree-top hunters can range from bright yellow to almost drab individuals. The first image is likely an adult male while the second may be a first-year female.

Lake Gwyn Park

Lake Parker Park

 

In its fall plumage, the Blackpoll Warbler is quite similar to the Pine Warbler. One helpful identifying feature is the Blackpoll’s yellow or orange feet. Some birds may have dark feet on the top, but the souls will always appear yellow or orange.

Gator Creek Reserve

 

Who is watching whom? A Yellow-throated Warbler contributes is bright black, white and yellow to our autumn outing.

Lake Parker Park

 

Gang leader. It seems whenever I hear a Tufted Titmouse calling, there will be a gaggle of other birds hanging around.

Lake Parker Park

 

We have a small population of Pied-billed Grebes which breed locally but the winter brings a ton of these little cuties. Yesterday, I counted 25 in one group hiding amongst bullrushes in a marsh.

East Lake Parker

 

A newly developed county park (Lake Gwyn near Winter Haven) has been littered with Apple Snail shells each time I’ve visited. One recent morning there were 14 Limpkins and five Snail Kites enjoying the buffet! I’m pretty sure the kites nested there this past spring and we look forward to monitoring their efforts this coming year.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

Near Lake Kissimmee in eastern Polk County, a drive along a road adjacent to a cattle ranch led to an encounter with two young Crested Caracara. They were not bothered by our presence and gave us that typical “ho-hum” look of disdain they apparently learn early in life.

Sam Keen Road

 

Although it’s autumn and the end of the year is rapidly approaching, nature continues to be in a constant state of renewal. At Lake Gwyn park where I found the Snail Kite above, a brand new family of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks appeared from behind an island. A proud Mom and Dad surrounded their group of ducklings (plus one straggler) all decked out in their little “bumble-bee” suits. More fall colors added to our Florida autumn album!

Lake Gwyn Park

 

Thank you for joining us as we get back into a birding routine. Even though you might not have a forest full of changing colors to enjoy, I suspect there are some colorful bundles of feathers not too far from your window. Go take a look.

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Storm Dodging

My dad didn’t know I was using his long-handled minnow net to scrape along the bottom of the drainage ditch trying to catch crayfish. That changed when I hit an unforgiving root and bent the frame of the net. Fortunately, he was more forgiving than the root and a quick twist of the pliers and the net was as good as new. But I wouldn’t be using it in the drainage ditch anymore, he said.

That was in Miami, Florida about 60 years ago. At about that same time, a towheaded tomboy was busy trying to catch tadpoles in a drainage ditch near Tampa, Florida. Two kids, two drainage ditches, infinite curiosity about nature, 200 miles apart. Who knew fate would bring us together in a music room where love eventually blossomed and is still in full bloom.

Florida summers bring sudden and ferocious thunderstorms with raindrops the size of quarters, earth shaking rumbles and bright streaks of lightning hurled from inky skies. The only thing more frightening than the storm was what would happen to my rear end if my Mother had to call me indoors more than once! Although the storm would usually pass quickly, it was difficult to be patient. I knew the rain would add more water to the drainage ditches which could hold frogs, their thousands of tadpoles, turtles, crayfish and who knew what other wonders!

We are older now and much wiser, with enough sense to remain indoors when a severe storm is brewing —–

NOT!

Why, that’s when all the birds are busy hunting for a last minute meal before the rains begin! We simply MUST be out there with them!

Thus, so it was last Wednesday. About a week ago, as I was traveling to an appointment downtown, I thought I glimpsed a Snail Kite along the shore of Lake Parker. There was too much traffic to stop safely and I was running a bit late so confirmation would have to wait. Until Wednesday. Until gathering storm clouds motivated me to pile Gini and bins and camera into the truck and go hunting. Bingo! There she was, atop a small cypress tree. She didn’t like my slinking around trying to hide behind trees to get close enough for a photo, but she remained in the area and I snapped a few shots for the record and left quickly so she could continue hunting for her escargot lunch. Before the storm.

We decided to check out a couple of the public boat ramp areas on the south and east sides of the lake since the rain had not yet begun. At the south ramp, a pair of Royal Terns were busy criss-crossing the lake in front of us while a young Limpkin extracted an apple snail from its shell. Half a dozen Osprey appeared to be suspended in the sky as they faced into the stiffening wind of the coming storm.  At the east ramp, there are more trees and we found a group of 14 Yellow Warblers feeding voraciously. Along with these migrants were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a couple of Prairie Warblers and a Yellow-throated Warbler. I even got a rare glimpse of a migratory Northern Waterthrush, a bird usually heard but not often seen very well. A couple of woodpeckers and a vireo were scouring the branches of a large oak tree. Along a canal leading to the lake, the soft “chortle” of a Least Bittern led me to the spot where he slowly emerged for exactly one picture before he melted back into the reeds. A young alligator was totally unconcerned about any storms as he was way too busy demonstrating how to relax. In a protected spot, a dragon posed in the sunlight before the storm clouds rolled in.

Gini and I found a small barbeque place that sold us a couple of sandwiches and we parked on the shore of a small lake and enjoyed Nature’s show while we ate. The lake’s surface was whipped into whitecaps, the sky was black as night, thunder rolled, quarter-sized drops hit the windshield and we reminisced about running barefoot in a drainage ditch full of rain water. I am blessed.

Images from before the storm.

 

This lady started it all today. A Snail Kite, endangered due to loss of habitat throughout Florida but, happily, holding their own.

Lake Parker

Snail Kite

 

A Royal Tern enjoys the breeze before the storm rolls in.

Lake Parker

Royal Tern

 

A secretive Least Bittern. In the proper habitat, they are usually heard but prefer to remain deep in the reeds. (It is a smallish heron measuring only 11-14 inches (28-36 cm) in length.) Here is its soft chuckling call:  Least Bittern Call.

Lake Parker Park

Least Bittern

 

Yellow-throated Warblers breed in Florida but in fall we begin to see numbers of them as migrants head south for the winter.

Lake Parker Park

Yellow-throated Warbler

 

A Prairie Warbler can have very subtle or very vivid facial markings. This one is a bit in between the extremes. These birds don’t breed in our area and are only enjoyed during migration.

Lake Parker Park

Prairie Warbler

 

Another migrant, the Northern Waterthrush resembles a member of the thrush family (even bearing the name!) but is actually a warbler. It spends most of its time on the ground or low perches in boggy areas.

Lake Parker Park

Northern Waterthrush

 

This Red-bellied Woodpecker is likely a first-year bird transitioning into adult plumage. Thus the “dirty” face.

Lake Parker Park

Red-bellied Woodpecker

 

Small Downy Woodpeckers are common in our area. This female is examining a lichen-covered branch hoping to find a snack.

Lake Parker Park

Downy Woodpecker

 

A Yellow-throated Vireo stopped hunting for a moment to gaze down at the old guy gazing up. This species breeds in our area so don’t know if this is a local or a fall visitor.

Lake Parker Park

Yellow-throated Vireo

 

When we drove up to the east side boat ramp area, before we got out of the truck, a gang of Yellow Warblers was very actively feeding in trees adjacent to the parking lot. It was interesting that within the group we spotted brightly colored males, the more subtly hued females and some almost gray looking immature birds.

Lake Parker Park

Yellow Warbler

 

Storms hold no fear for a dragon! Well, I imagine once the wind and rain begin, this dragon will seek shelter. This is a Four-spotted Pennant and is a young female. As she matures, the spots on each wing will become darker. The bright white stigmas on each wing leading edge and the slender abdomen are diagnostic for this species.

Lake Crago Park

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) – Female

Lake Crago Park

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) – Female

 

“Storm? What storm?” Typical alligator attitude.

East Lake Parker

American Alligator

 

We love living in the Sunshine State with its clear bright blue skies most of the year. But when the storms arrive, we still don’t mind dodging the raindrops to find a few birds. And if we happen to spot a drainage ditch full of water, well, these shoes and socks can disappear pretty quick!

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

 

 

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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