Posts Tagged With: brown thrasher

Winter Preview

I was doing my best to create man-made global warming, and I didn’t feel at all guilty about it. Okay, so it was actually “automobile warming”. As a Floridian who birds mostly in, well, Florida, I don’t get a chance to complain about cold weather too often. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from doing so when the occasion arises.

The occasion arose a couple of weeks ago. We experienced our first actual cold front and naturally just knew it would blow in all sorts of migrants. So, off to Lake Apopka!

We write about this area often because it is just so unique. Thousands of birds, diverse species, native flora and fauna – and if you want, you can enjoy it all from the comfort of your vehicle! For someone with physical limitations, this is a wonderful opportunity. The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is about 11 miles in length, winds through expansive wetlands and many birds are literally right outside your window!

The thing is, it would have been so simple to keep the heater running and casually motor through the area sipping hot chocolate and leisurely commenting: “Oh, look, ANOTHER Peregrine Falcon.” It seems we are not built that way. For the full experience, one must use all the senses to appreciate what nature has to offer. This is true for any venue.

So, down went the windows and we strained to hear the whinny of a Sora ten miles distant or a Marsh Wren scolding from the Alligator Weed alongside the canal. We were cold. The low temperatures were exacerbated by near gale force winds and bits of mist that soaked your face as soon as you gazed the wrong direction. Plus, we frequently exited the car and explored paths away from the main road. This gave us the illusion we were really “birding” instead of just riding in the car.

(If you are in the market for a vehicle and plan to go birding anywhere it may be cold, three words: “Individual. Seat. Heaters.”)

Estimates for the day included nearly 10,000 American Coot; over 5,000 Common Gallinule; hundreds of Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail and Ring-necked Duck; a smattering of American Widgeon, Gadwall and Green-winged Teal; a couple of Canvasback and even a rarish Cinnamon Teal. Throw in wading birds, song birds, shore birds, raptors (including the aforementioned uncommon Peregrine – a pair!) – and it didn’t take long to almost not notice how wet and cold we were!

The wildlife drive is on the east side of Lake Apopka. We also visited two small parks on the south side of the lake where we found a few surprises. Links to all three places we traveled are below under “Additional Information“.

 

A gray face and collar, reddish brown wings, a bit of yellow at the base of its bill – a Swamp Sparrow mostly remained in heavy brush. Probably to keep warm!

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

The male Painted Bunting looks like it fell onto an artist’s palette and rolled around. They are not extremely common and it is a treat to see that ball of color flitting about gathering seeds. Later in the day at Oakland Nature Preserve, we spotted a female. Not as gaudy as a male, it’s easy to see why many call her a “greenie”.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Oakland Nature Preserve

 

Plumages of many shorebirds and waders help them blend perfectly with their surroundings. Of course, once this Greater Yellowlegs shows off his bright legs, it’s tough to remain hidden.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

The Peregrine Falcon is a rare sighting for me. They don’t breed in Florida so our only chance to spot one is during migration. We saw a pair almost immediately after entering the wildlife drive, chasing one another at Mach 3. About an hour later, I found one perched by the side of the road. I try to avoid photos of raptors on utility lines, but in this case I made an exception. What magnificent creatures!

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

I am a Florida native and grew up fishing all across central and south Florida. Everywhere I fished, the Great Blue Heron fished. I have seen them try to eat a lot of things. Today was the first time I watched one eat an alligator.

Four-step process: 1. Make sure the ‘gator is dead. 2. Get the head pointing toward the back of your throat. 3. Try to flatten out the critter as much as possible. 4. Toss your head back and swallow. (Hot sauce optional.)

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

Let’s face it. Few birds have attitudes similar to a wren. They are fearless. Quick to jump out at any disturbance. Vocal about anything in their territory. The Marsh Wren only visits us in the winter and we are better for it. Did I mention they are adorable?

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

Speaking of cute. We counted nearly 100 Pied-billed Grebe for the day. That’s a lot of little fluffy butts turned up as they dive for a meal.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

Expert waders and stalkers, the Snowy Egret’s “golden slippers” at the ends of her black legs provide a perfect contrast for those white airy feathers.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

When you first gaze out across some of the more dense vegetation of the wetlands, you soon become aware the whole surface seems to be moving. Through the binoculars, an amazing variety of life comes into focus. If not for her powder-blue namesake, this Blue-winged Teal is nearly invisible.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

Talk about camouflage! The Wilson’s Snipe could sit still and it would be easy to walk right by him. Which I suspect has happened more than I would like to admit. Once they take off in an explosion from under your boot – adrenaline happens!

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

After lunch, we visited Owens Park on the south side of Lake Apopka. It’s a community park perfect for picnics, fishing from a pier and launching a boat. This uncommon Snail Kite found it a perfect spot to find Apple Snails.

Newton Park

 

Also at Owens Park, a Bronzed Cowbird foraged with a flock of Boat-tailed Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds. The bluish wings and tail along with its red eyes help it to stand out as “something different”.

Newton Park

 

A bit further south and west we found the Oakland Nature Preserve. A well-maintained boardwalk allows visitors to enjoy stands of hardwood which give way to cypress swamp on the way to the shore of Lake Apopka.

The female Painted Bunting above was with a group of Tufted Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

 

Along the boardwalk, a Brown Thrasher kept a wary golden eye on us.

Oakland Nature Preserve

 

The iridescence of a Common Grackle adds to the color of Red Maple leaves.

Oakland Nature Preserve

 

A small Northern Parula dropped by to see what we were up to.

Oakland Nature Preserve

 

Almost back to the parking lot, a sleepy Barred Owl was roused (but not much) by the clicking shutter of my camera.

Oakland Nature Preserve

 

Fall migration is essentially finished. Winter is making itself at home in many parts of the country. No matter the season, get out and enjoy a walk (or a drive in a warm car!) to see what nature has to show you.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Newton Park

Oakland Nature Preserve

 

P.S.

In many areas, volunteers are helping out with the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. If you have never participated, find a group near you and spend a day counting our feathered friends. At this time in history, accurate recording of their numbers may be more vital than ever before. Thank you!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Forest Adventure

“Should I take a jacket?”

Not a common question in the sub-tropical “Sunshine State”. However, we do experience a few cool days at this time of year where a jacket would definitely make an early morning outing more comfortable.

My sage advice to one who already knows the answers to all things: “Take one along. That will insure you won’t need it.”

Indeed, the day was perfect. Cool but comfortable without the jacket. High clouds but dry all morning. Best of all – no wind.

Every time we return to the Arbuckle Tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, we seem to encounter something different. With over 13,000 acres, I suppose that’s not too surprising. Birds, mammals, reptiles, flora – no wonder it has become one of our favorite locations!

We were a bit concerned as we neared the entrance road. Two large dump trucks lumbered towards us on their way out of the forest. Later, we encountered a grader smoothing out the fresh dirt to fill in some deep holes. A forest service truck was parked alongside the road and workers were spraying invasive plants, primarily Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia).

Maintenance day.

No worries. The wildlife didn’t seem to mind the sprucing up at all. Neither did we.

Almost immediately after entering the forest tract, we spotted a Florida Scrub-Jay. The day was already a success! This is the only bird species that lives exclusively in Florida. They can be found in scrub pine and oak flatwoods occurring in high and dry areas, such as the ancient ridge running down the center of the peninsula (where we were located) as well as coastal and river sand dunes adjacent to likely scrub areas.

From the state forest link below:

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest derives its name from the narrow ridge that runs north and south through the Florida Peninsula. Many years ago ancient ocean levels rose and covered nearly all of the present-day peninsula. The ridge became an island on which the plants and animals continued to evolve in isolation.”

We enjoyed a quiet breakfast at tranquil Lake Godwin. Returning toward the main road, Gini’s sharp ears picked up the “rubber-ducky” squeaking of a gang of Brown-headed Nuthatches. At the same time, a dozen or so Pine Warblers landed and foraged in the grass of the road ahead, Eastern Bluebirds flitted just above the palmetto fronds going from pine tree to pine tree, Downy Woodpeckers probed the higher branches for bugs and – what’s that? A slight movement gave away a Fox Squirrel hugging a nearby pine tree trunk. He moved quickly to a higher limb as I pointed the camera in his direction.

The morning ended all too soon and we reluctantly headed home. A flurry of activity at the forest entrance caused us to pause for an additional half-hour. The trees were filled with Tufted Titmice, Pine Warblers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Great Crested Flycatcher, Northern Cardinals, Palm Warblers, Blue Jays and the fabulous Florida Scrub-Jay. Like a wave rolling along, the mass of feathered feeders moved on – as did we.

What a nice exclamation point on our very fine forest adventure!

 

An excited Eastern Towhee greeted us as we arrived at the forest entrance road.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

We only see Palm Warblers during migration, although many remain through the winter. This one found a juicy morsel for breakfast and proceeded to pound it mercilessly on the branch until it was suitably tenderized.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Diminutive Brown-headed Nuthatches are fearless and quick to arrive in defense of their territory when an intruder (that would be me) is detected. The problem is, they tend to remain among the highest possible branches directly overhead. I have a fair collection of nuthatch underside images.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

The  “mammal formerly known as Sherman’s Fox Squirrel” has apparently been re-classified as genetically the same as the Southern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). No matter what his name is, it’s a magnificent animal!

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Gini’s artistic eye found a pine tree which was felled by recent wind storms to be appealing in its rich color and diverse texture.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

My bride’s keen observation also spotted a new plant (for us): Pineland Purple (Carphephorus odoratissimus var. subtropicanus), also called False Vanillaleaf.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

The Great Southern White (Ascia monuste) may be lacking in a diversity of color but she is still a stunning beauty.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

He saw me before I saw him. A Great Crested Flycatcher allowed one photo before diving for cover.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Rusty brown and a golden eye combined with its large size and impressive beak identify the Brown Thrasher. In the same family as the Northern Mockingbird (Mimidae), the Brown Thrasher has been observed to have more than 1,000 songs in its repertoire!

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

The relatively small Common Ground Dove in good light and up close is seen to have a “scaly” appearance. About the size of a Song Sparrow, they rely on their plumage to remain hidden in the grass and I’ve been startled many times as one flushes almost from under my feet.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Florida Scrub-Jays remain in family groups throughout the year. Last year’s offspring often help raise next year’s brood. Immature birds will stay and help defend the territory for about a year before seeking their own homestead.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Another amazing adventure in this beautiful forest! Hopefully, you have your own woodland or special area to explore and discover new things each time you go.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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