The Plan

Several weeks ago the Spring migration was winding down and we wanted to see if we could locate shorebirds on the return flight from South America to their northern breeding grounds. It’s not that I’m anti-social (do NOT ask Gini her opinion), but I gravitate toward areas which might be less visited by humans. Even if the potential for species diversity is not as great, if it’s just the two of us it seems, well, more intimate and “special”. I’m selfish that way.

Pine Island came to mind. There are at least four different communities in Florida bearing the name “Pine Island”. This one is in Hernando County at the end of a really nice country road which snakes through the vast flat salt marsh on the Gulf Coast. On past trips, the last stretch of road has produced Clapper Rails, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Bald Eagles, rainbows and is a wonderful prelude to the actual beach area. The beach is small but across the channel is a mudflat which attracts all sorts of birds. The view from the beach is the open Gulf of Mexico and with a scope at this time of year could yield mergansers and loons.

I checked the weather forecast and recent birding reports. Sandwiches were packed, a breakfast of granola and fresh orange slices got us off to a great start and we set out into the pre-dawn darkness. One little thing I forgot to check, tidal charts. That “wonderful prelude” road was filled with water and no speck of mud was in sight. No worries. To the beach! That’s odd. We’ve never seen anyone at the entrance station before. It’s usually put your money in the slot and get a ticket. “Good Morning, folks! How many dogs do you have?” Uhhh, none. “Oh, that’s okay. Enjoy your day.” Dogs?? Yes, today was “Bark Island” day, a twice-monthly affair when dog owners could bring their pets to the beach, unleash them and sit back and watch the fun! I made a valiant effort to set up the scope and scan the water for signs of floating feathered fowl. Nothing. A Laughing Gull landed nearby hoping for a chunk of bread. Three dozen yapping balls of fur convinced him to take flight to the Yucatan. Sigh. Time for Plan B.

Just around the corner was Bayport Park, a nice county facility with new modern boat ramps, fishing pier and picnic area. A small wooded area sometimes held good numbers of migrating warblers. Not this day. I saw a pair of Horned Grebes about a thousand miles out in the bay who sensed I was looking at them and submerged never to be seen again. Sigh. Thank goodness for Plan C!

Down the road was a lovely hardwood swamp with an old logging road through it and several hiking trails to explore. The Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area is home to black bears, bobcats, turkeys (!), owls and possibly some of those resting warblers. Alas, it was not to be. Once more, I had failed to check a little detail. Today was the first day of the Spring Turkey hunting season. Boom! Blam! We heard the fun long before we came face to face with orange vest-clad hunters fanning out from the trailhead in all directions. Okay, full disclosure. I didn’t really have a Plan D. Quick thinking, however, salvaged our day.

Not all that far north was the town of Crystal River and a road which ran parallel to the actual Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the trail is Fort Island Gulf Beach. Another very small beach directly on the Gulf. Listen. Hear that? No barking! No booming or blamming! A few hardy souls (obviously not from Florida) were wading into the chilly water pretending it was as wonderful as a warm bath. Right.

On the beach, in addition to shivering tourists, we found several dozen napping Black Skimmers, a few hundred Laughing Gulls, a young Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gulls, Royal Terns, a Least Tern and a not very common Bonaparte’s Gull.

We enjoyed our sandwiches under a bright blue sky with a salty breeze making us comfortable in Florida’s ample sunshine. An Eastern Bluebird yanked a fat grub from the ground, took it to a utility wire above us and enjoyed his lunch, too.

Photographs with size comparisons coming up. There will be a test so study hard!

 

The Royal Tern is the second largest tern in North America with only the Caspian being larger. The Royal has an orange-yellow bill while the Caspian’s is red. Except for a short period during breeding, the Royal’s forehead is white and the Caspian’s is either black or “smudgy”. (During our visit, we noted several Royal Terns with bands/rings.)

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

This is only the second Bonaparte’s Gull I’ve seen. It’s one of the smallest gulls in the country and has a distinctive graceful flight. It often swims on the water’s surface like a duck.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

 

Least Terns are the smallest terns in North America and breed along Florida’s coast. They usually nest near beaches but will also use the flat roofs of buildings. This can present problems because some buildings use tar to hold gravel in place. The tar can become very hot and burn the birds’ feet or become stuck in their feathers.

Least Tern

Least Tern

 

One of our largest gulls is the Herring Gull. It takes four years for a juvenile Herring Gull to reach adult plumage. In their first year they are mostly mottled brown and gradually change to more and more gray and white. As adults they will sport light gray backs, black wingtips, white heads and underparts. This appears to be a first-year bird.

Herring Gull - Immature

Herring Gull – Immature

 

Herring Gull - Immature, Laughing Gull

Herring Gull – Immature, Laughing Gull

 

The lineup. From left to right: Royal Terns, Herring Gull, Least Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull (in front), Laughing Gull and Ring-billed Gull. I tried to get them all to face the camera but I think they spotted someone down the beach with a sandwich.

Gulls and Terns

Gulls and Terns

 

As the sun was almost directly overhead, many of the birds thought it was a fine time for a nap. A Laughing Gull and Black Skimmer snooze on the sand.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

 

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

One bird who was not asleep was this Eastern Bluebird. He saw us break out our sandwiches and jumped into the grass, pulled up a juicy grub, beat it on the ground to tenderize it and took it above our heads and gulped it down. Yum!

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

 

 

I recently blathered on about planning (The Importance of a Plan). This is where I admonish: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Even back-up plans can go awry. In my case, I’m very blessed to have a partner who genuinely enjoys just exploring our world, with or without a plan. And, for me, THAT’S all I ever need!

 

We hope you 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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19 thoughts on “The Plan

  1. When in Menorca we had the same problem as Florida – too much good weather, clear nights, clear days and a lack of migrants dropping in. Never mind it was suitably sunny and warm, almost Florida-like I guess. When we got home just the opposite and exactly as we left it two weeks earlier – wind, rain, cool and blowy and birders complaining. Welcome to Spring birding UK.

    It’s not often I get to Plan D but I can certainly empathise with your doggy and shooting traumas. The doggy people are pains in the proverbial here, always spoiling my birding unless I get up at 4am and even then they might be first on the trail where their mutt must be equally loved by everyone – yuk!

    Good to see all those gulls and terns where I concentrated on the Bonaparte’s as I’m sure they go missing amongst our many thousands of Black-headed Gulls. I do need to be a bit more gull focused.

    I’m so pleased you enjoyed your virtual tour of Menorca. It truly is a gem of a place. If I had a million dollars, pounds or Euros I’d buy a villa there.

    • Fortunately, there have been precious few “Plan D” days, thank goodness! Yes, I am certain I miss a lot of gulls due to careless/lazy observation. A group of a thousand Laughing Gulls can be daunting to examine one by one, especially for my old eyes. I totally understand your affection for Menorca. It really seems perfect.

      Happy you had a good holiday and hopefully your Spring will produce good birding before the Summer arrives!

      We hope your week is off to a great start!

  2. I always learn something about birds whenever I come here. Wally, I thank you for the knowledge you share on your blog. Your photos are stupendous, as always!

    • Hi, Gail! As you have experienced, producing one of these blog thingies forces us to go learn stuff! Pretty soon I’ll be an actual certified smarty-pants!

  3. Once again an very interesting post. Yes plans are good but flexibility in being able to think and change a plan quickly is the answer and the adventure and the you may even be rewarded with a lovely surprise that you did not expect! That is the way I look at it. In fact this happened to me yesterday when I was out with my bird group. Although the very loose plan was going to plan I saw a little tract up an embankment and wondered what was over the little hill so I asked my class to wait while I investigated. It was a large piece of water I never know was there and a small path. I asked my class did they want to come up ( remembering that 4 of them are over 80!). All said yes with a little helping hand. And we were rewarded with different birds that we would not have seen on the other path as this was sea water and the other path went round a fresh water lake that we had walked last year. At the end of this new path to us, there was a fantastic newly build curved stone bench type seat.when we stopped to have our coffee. The sun came out. PERFECT. I could not have planned it better if I had tried. I love the way you have told this story of yours and it is great that Gini is always up for an adventure like yourself . Now your photographs of the Terns and Gulls are fabulous and it was great to see that selection all together so that we were able to see the size differences. Altogether another wonderful and enjoyable post. Thanks Wally.

    • Margaret, that’s a wonderful story and just points out how important it is to be flexible in our plans! Thank you for your very kind comments!

  4. It’s such a treat to see birds that don’t make it to southern Illinois.

    • Now, if we could just see some of our winter warblers up in Illinois all dressed in their breeding plumage!
      Thank you for visiting!

  5. Sounds like a great day after all. Beautiful shots of the shore birds and the sweet little Bluebird.

  6. OH yes, that last paragraph says it all. I don’t think we’re anti-social either but we certainly prefer to do our exploring, birding and beachcombing in at least semi-privacy. And especially someplace where there are no turkey hunters or dogs running free. Eeks. I’m so glad you developed a Plan D on the fly and that you shared it all with us. Especially the pictures. (And that one with all of them in line for you, even if they were looking the other way, what a wonderful catch — and helpful to perpetual novice birders like me.) Thanks.

  7. sounds like you enjoyed the day, regardless. 🙂 amazing the gulls take so long to mature. always love the terns. such neat looking birds.

  8. Congratulations on your dogged determination to pull something out of the hat – and succeeeding in doing so, Wally. One can only do so much planning, or one spends all one’s life planning and not doing. Sometimes the unexpected will rear its ugly head – and things don’t get much more ugly than a crowd of dog-walkers or a bevvy of hunters. Fortunately, occasions like this where even Plan C goes awry are rare.

    I find it hard to envisage shivvering tourists in Florida! Just how cold does it get there in May? I guess it’s all relative to what you’ve become acclimatised to. Here it’s beach weather if it’s 20 deg C (I think that’s 68 deg F?).

    Best wishes from England where it’s been raining all day so far and the temperature is currently 9 C (48 F)! – – – Richard

    • Good Morning, Richard! That trip was actually taken in the middle of March. The air temp was comfortable but the water was still too cold for me! And you’re right – better to go with minimal planning that to spend too much time at it!

      Hope your rain eases up soon. All the best – Wally

  9. Great photos of all the terns and gulls and especially interesting to see the photos showing size comparisons. All those people don’t sound so good! I do admire your persistence in finding a quieter place!

    • Thanks, Mick! Yeah, it takes a little more diligence to find the roads less traveled, but we think it’s worth it.

      Hope your new week is off to a great start!

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