Posts Tagged With: black skimmer

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

At The Edge Of The Final Frontier

The transition from night into day is a subtle process. Our eyes perceive only that which artificial illumination permits. Beyond the edge of the bright headlamps of the car is – nothing. Just a few minutes ago, there were things familiar to us bathed in the glow of their own artificial lighting. Traffic lights, a gas station, hotel, shopping center, airplanes on approach to a multicolored-lit runway. As we zipped eastward to embrace the dawn, we traversed a vast marsh. Peering through the side window revealed – the bottom of an inkwell. Soon, shadows took shape on all sides. In front of us was a barely perceptible line of dark blue. Another mile and below the dark blue was a lighter shade of blue with a very pale pink border. An orange glow began to consume the center of our field of forward vision and almost immediately we could see that sliver of star which warms our planet to a perfectly habitable degree.

Today we were exploring the northern reaches of the Indian River. (See the previous post, Learning Something New, for what we found to the south.) The primary target of our adventure is the vast Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve and neighboring Canaveral National Seashore. Encompassing over 140,000 acres (56,656 ha.), the area has a tremendous diversity of habitat and wildlife. Click on the link under Additional Information below to get a small idea of the possibilities.

Some of this region’s first human inhabitants were the Ais Indians. Primarily hunter/gatherers, the Ais likely had their first encounter with westerners during the 16th century as the Spanish explored and mapped the area. Indeed, the Spanish noted on their maps the Rio de Ais, which probably became River of the Indians and was eventually shortened to Indian River. These native Floridians inhabited the peninsula along with at least five other major Indian nations until contact with westerners brought disease and slavery to the territory. This and continued warring with neighboring tribes contributed to the Ais’ demise and the last record of them was in the early 1700’s.

Fast forward two-hundred years. After the end of World War II, America was developing long-range missiles and needed a place larger than White Sands, New Mexico for testing. The Atlantic Ocean is pretty big. At the time, not much of anyone was interested in living along the mosquito-infested upper reaches of the Indian River. Thus, in the area of an old light house at Cape Canaveral, a space program was born.

As we gazed in awe at yet another spectacular sunrise, it was stirring to think about a young Ais armed with his spear tipped with a hook carved from a deer hoof, pulling a fat mullet from the water just as the same orange ball broke this same horizon. The bright orb matches the color of the powerful rocket thrusters which carried the first humans to our moon, launched from this spot. Thinking of both events makes me feel humble.

The sun was up. There were birds to be seen. Fortified with one of Florida’s juiciest oranges and a swig of hot coffee, we saw birds. Lots of birds. Alongside the Atlantic Ocean, Merritt Island Refuge is dotted with marshes, ponds, stands of hardwood and pine, hammocks and beaches. Paradise for migrating as well as resident birds. Paradise for birders, too!

In a place such as this, a single day cannot possibly do justice to all that can be seen here. I guess we’ll just have to keep returning. A few of the highlights: 72 total species observed, 40+ Blue-winged Teal, 60+ Northern Shoveler, 300+ Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Mottled Duck, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Hooded Merganser, 250+ Snowy Egret, 300+ White Ibis, 40+ Roseate Spoonbill, 3000+ American Coot, 70+ American Avocet, 50+ Yellowlegs, 100+ Dunlin, 50+ Long-billed Dowitcher, 500+ Tree Swallow and 4 Reddish Egret. An embarrassment of birding riches.

Yeah. We’ll be back.

 

Even in non-breeding plumage, American Avocet are simply beautiful. They will sometimes hold just the tip of their bill in the water and filter small morsels, or probe deeper along the bottom as they sweep their bills back and forth.

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

 

It is estimated there are fewer than 2,000 pairs of Reddish Egrets remaining in the U.S. This large egret has both a dark (reddish) and white form. No matter what color it is, it’s feeding behavior is quite distinct. The bird will run through shallow water hoping to scare a fish, walk slowly and reach out with one foot and “stir” the mud, stand still with wings outstretched to provide shade for fish, spin around in one spot to try and scare up a meal or hop up out of the water entirely and splash back down. These guys are a lot of fun to watch.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

 

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

 

The Snowy Egret may not go through quite as many antics as her big red brother, but even on a bad hair day she gets the job done.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

Some of our winter visitors, the Hooded Merganser and family, enjoy the warm shallow waters of the Sunshine State.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

 

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs surprised me by jumping up from the mangroves and I was only able to snap a quick shot of their departure.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

 

Not a clear photograph, but I’m happy to get any shot of a Northern Harrier during the short time they visit us in the winter. This one has what appears to be a shorebird leg in his beak.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

 

Sunlight reveals a whole spectrum of colors on the Northern Shoveler. Another migrant, it’s hard to miss this bird’s unique silhouette.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

 

This Forster’s Tern objected, loudly, to me standing along the shoreline snapping photographs. I finally took one of HIM and he left me alone.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

 

The large Royal Tern can be identified from the similar Caspian Tern by an orangish (instead of deep red) bill and a mostly clear (instead of black) forehead.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Even in winter, butterflies abound. This Great Southern White will only live five or six days. There were so many in some areas it looked like snow falling.

Great Southern White  (Ascia monuste monuste)

Great Southern White (Ascia monuste monuste)

 

American White Pelicans exhibit “cooperative feeding”. They work together to “herd” a school of fish to a certain area and almost in unison plunge down to fill their large pouches. It all resembles a choreographed ballet. Minus the swans.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

Roseate Spoonbills are pretty at any time of year. However, as breeding season nears all their colors become deeper and their head and breasts take on additional markings.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Banded Water Snake is on the lunch menu for this Great Blue Heron. The big bird tries to kill the snake by bashing it on the ground before swallowing it whole.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

In the middle of a construction equipment storage yard, we spotted a Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest atop a utility pole. Soon there will be the pitter-pat of little talons.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

 

We apparently found a favorite wintering spot for the Northern Pintail. Over 300 birds were busily feeding in the late afternoon in a large open water area. A very handsome bird.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

A Ring-necked Duck, riding low in the water, doesn’t see what’s so special about these Pintails.

Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck

Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck

 

As we reluctantly headed home at the end of the day, a wintering Horned Grebe popped up from a small bay to say good-bye.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

 

The last rays of the sun warmed a group of Black Skimmers on the beach all huddled together for the night. Sounds like a good idea.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

We hope to return soon for another overdose of birding! Whether you are interested in history, enjoy birding or are fascinated with space exploration, visit Merritt Island if you possibly can!

(Huh? I don’t know. Soon. — Gini is punching me in the side wanting to know when we can go again. Sigh.)

 

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

 

Additional Information

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

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