Posts Tagged With: river otter

Scouting For The Count

“I’ll be happy to help you do some scouting”, said Gini The Naive.

This year will mark the 118th year of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. (Yes, as a matter of fact I WAS at the first count over a hundred years ago. Smart alecks.) At that time, a genius birder (okay, that’s redundant) had a novel idea. “Hey, how about we just COUNT the birds instead of seeing who can shoot the most?” A movement and a tradition were born. The data from each year’s count is compiled by Cornell University in New York and makes available a treasure trove of research material for scientists as they attempt to understand the status of our avian friends.

In order to help our team operate as efficiently as possible on the actual count day, I spent the prior week searching out known bird haunts and seeking new ones. Knowing which birds are present helps us concentrate on locating less common species. Part of this process involves listening for owls. They call when it’s dark outside. Therefore, we must be outdoors in potential owl habitat when it’s dark outside. Sunrise is about 7:00. The sky begins to lighten about 6:00. Yep, Gini The Naive deduced we needed to set the alarm clock really early! No complaints from her. Not even a whimper. That’s a good thing. She’s the one with the keen hearing.

After all was said and done, we had a very good official count day of birding and tallied a few more species than last year. The weather was great with a cool morning, warm day and gentle breeze. For me, highlights of this year’s efforts include:  a single Bufflehead (not common in our area), a flock of 18 Wild Turkey (unusual in our dense suburban environment), a relatively high number of Blue-headed Vireo and an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk (a winter visitor in small numbers).

Gini The Naive was, as expected, simply fantastic during scouting week as I took her to all the great birding locales:  the aforementioned pre-dawn owling forays, a cemetery, muddy marshes, dusty dirt roads and the ever-popular city dump. Once again, she proved she is, and shall ever be, Gini My Beloved!

Since you asked, I did take a couple of snapshots.

 

As the morning fog began to lift from the marsh it revealed one of the local fishermen already on the job. The Great Blue Heron paid no attention to my clumsy efforts.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

A pair of Anhinga patiently wait for a bit of sunshine before they begin diving in the chilly water.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

Another hunter of the wetlands, a Great Egret, has his eye on a frog and doesn’t acknowledge my presence.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

Morning commute. A River Otter pushed up a wake under his chin as he headed for his office across the lake.

Banana Lake Park

 

I wasn’t sure if this Osprey was curious, territorial or ticked off.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

After watching a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker chase a Red-bellied Woodpecker around a clearing and in and out of the trees, the pair landed briefly on an oak before taking off on their game of tag again.

Crooked Lake WEA

 

A dapper looking Black-and-White Warbler probes a hole in a branch for breakfast.

Crooked Lake WEA

 

Golden Silk Orb Weavers craft very strong webs across paths to catch all manner of prey during the night – and occasional birders during the day who are constantly looking up instead of where they’re going!

Crooked Lake WEA

 

I don’t know if the feathers under the talons of this Red-shouldered Hawk are from preening or left over from a morning snack.

Lake Gwyn Park

 

This year I seem to have found more Blue-headed Vireos than in the past. That’s okay with me!

Crooked Lake WEA

 

Pine Warblers can vary from very drab to very bright. This is one of the brighter variety and I chased after him quite awhile before he sat still for a picture.

Crooked Lake WEA

 

Another bright yellow fellow, this Yellow-throated Warbler has found a hairy white caterpillar for brunch. Yum!

Crooked Lake WEA

 

North America’s smallest falcon, the American Kestrel, is quite colorful. I was lucky to find one that remained on a perch while I was less than a mile away.

Lake Streety Road

 

There I was, head up searching for warblers in the tree-tops, when I had the feeling I was being watched. One picture and this White-tailed buck sprang across the path in one leap and disappeared into the forest.

Gator Creek Reserve

 

A cold morning and a fluffed up Yellow-rumped Warbler. We don’t often get to see the bit of yellow in their crown.

Mount Olive Primitive Cemetery

 

Speaking of beautiful. The majestic Turkey Vulture. The other birds are beside themselves with envy.

Mount Olive Primitive Cemetery

 

During the winter, a few sparrows hang around and challenge us to identify them. Head pattern, diffuse streaks on the breast and a nice rufous wing patch tell us this is a Swamp Sparrow.Banana Lake Park

 

Soft mud is a magnet for shorebirds. This Killdeer characteristically ran a few steps, probed the mud, ran a few steps, probed. Fun to watch!Bartow Medical Center

 

A small stream in the middle of a pasture is not where I expected to spot a Bufflehead!

Rolling Woods Lane

 

The back of an Eastern Meadowlark blends perfectly with the dried grasses where they live. That bright yellow front and loud, clear song, however, make it impossible for it to hide!Rolling Woods Lane

 

One of those little brown birds again. This Savannah Sparrow walked (quickly) from one clump of grass to another in a field before I caught him in the open long enough for a photograph.

Rolling Woods Lane

 

Reaching for the latch to a corral gate, I spotted a Monarch Butterfly chrysalis. Every bit as beautiful as its contents.

Rolling Woods Lane

 

Winter migration brings us an influx of Eastern Phoebes.  These small flycatchers stay busy all day sallying forth from an exposed perch to capture any insect foolish enough to be out in the open.

Lake Hancock Tract

 

Not to be outdone by his Blue-headed cousin, this White-eyed Vireo sang and posed for several minutes.

Banana Lake Park

 

This is the closest I’ve been to a Sharp-shinned Hawk. They only visit during the winter and I normally see them as a brown blur as they speed after a little songbird in the woods.

Lake Hancock Tract

 

 

This year’s Christmas Bird Count was a success for our entire 50+ person effort, my own 5 member team and was immeasurably enhanced by the participation of the one and only Gini My Beloved. She and I wish each and every one of you the best Holiday Season ever!

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR

 

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

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

The Importance Of A Plan

City lights faded and we were enveloped in the utter darkness of a rural netherworld. Cocooned within our metal container, we sped through miles of citrus groves, the air heavy with the almost-too-sweet fragrance of orange blossoms. As the perfume dissipated, we knew outside our windows were nearly endless fields of commercially grown sod, the new crop rapidly replacing citrus which has lately been ravaged by disease and foreign markets. The fog wasn’t the thick sea fog of the coast. Clouds of the mist had settled into the low places around us – ponds and bogs and dips in the road. No sooner had we slowed down for the gray stuff, than we immediately emerged into the crystal clear atmosphere of pre-dawn sky where the brightest stars were grudgingly giving way to the almost imperceptible light of our new day.

Avon Park Air Force Range. Not a very attractive name for our goal of observing Nature, but a destination which is near the top of our list of favorite places to visit. Consisting of over 106,000 acres (42,900 ha), we have discovered most visitors only head for one of the campgrounds or the Kissimmee River which forms the eastern boundary of the range. Hunting season is an exception, when nimrods practice their skill in tracking White-tailed Deer and feral hogs. Accordingly, I checked the hunting schedule to ensure any wildlife we might observe would not be subject to being harvested while we watched.

 

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Man Gang aft agley …” (From The Mouse, Robert Burns)

 

My reading skills apparently are due for a checkup. I missed one little entry on the Florida Wildlife Commission’s hunting calendar. A special wild (feral) hog hunt would be allowed on the last weekend of the month. Want to guess when we visited? For an extra added attraction, several of the roads within the range were closed to the public for military exercises. Also, red flags were flying at all of the live-fire ranges within the complex. It was an interesting morning. We pulled to the side of the road several times to allow military convoys to pass. The staccato of rifle fire from the ranges was occasionally replaced with the dull, earth-shaking boom of large artillery. Our tranquil pine woods where we hoped to find woodpeckers feeding had been infiltrated by dozens of hog hunters each with a pair of dogs scrambling through the palmetto scrub hot on a fresh scent. And us with no blaze orange vests to help separate us from the aforementioned porcine targets.

 

Despite an initial urge to flee, we persevered. And were generously rewarded. Over 100,000 acres offers a lot of territory to explore and, happily, not all of it was open to hunters or being used by the military. We discovered wildflowers in bloom, butterflies and bees, a pair of hungry River Otters, Florida “Cracker” cattle (descended from herds left by Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago), over 50 species of birds and even — shhhh!, don’t tell those folks mentioned above — wild hogs. Birding highlights included migrants fueling up for continuing their northward journey: 80+ Pine Warblers, 50+ American Robins, 20+ Eastern Bluebirds, over a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers, several hundred Red-winged Blackbirds and over a thousand Tree Swallows. We observed all eight woodpecker species possible in this area at this time of year: Red-headed, Red-bellied, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (migratory), Hairy, Downy, Red-cockaded (endangered), Northern Flicker and Pileated. This alone made the trip very special, indeed! All of this and we even found a quiet spot on the river where we enjoyed a cool breeze, a curious opossum, fish jumping, a singing vireo and – best of all – each others’ company.

 

Some of this was photographically documented.

 

The Pine Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds seemed to hang around together in loose flocks all over the range. Safety in numbers perhaps?

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

 

The Florida Scrub Jay is endemic to the state and endangered due to massive losses over the years of its unique habitat requirements. We found a half dozen of these colorful, typically loud birds. They remain in extended family groups and mob potential threats (such as birders) and first/second year birds will often raise their parents’ new chicks. All of the birds within the Avon Park Range are closely monitored by biologists and all have various leg-bands for easy identification (the birds, not the biologists).

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

 

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

 

We found a pair of River Otters hunting and dining by a stream. While they were curious about us, they didn’t miss a beat in catching and enjoying fresh fish for lunch.

River Otter

River Otter

River Otter

River Otter

 

As with the Florida Scrub Jay, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is very closely monitored and studied within the range. It is also in trouble due to habitat loss. Important discoveries about how to protect this species’ future have been made by scientists here and we (as well as the birds!) owe them a big thanks for their efforts.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

 

There are over 600 species of Crotalaria world-wide and most contain an alkaloid which can be poisonous to some birds and animals. Native to the old world, where planted in Florida it has thrived. The plant is used in landscapes, it is beneficial in erosion control and was once used as a green manure until the discovery of the poisonous effects on some animals.

Rattle-box  (Crotalaria spectabilis)

Rattle-box (Crotalaria spectabilis)

 

Common in wet areas, the Virginia Willow blossoms attract many insects, smells wonderful and will eventually grow to 20-30 feet tall.

Virginia Willow  (Itea virginica)

Virginia Willow (Itea virginica)

 

A violet green body helps identify this butterfly as a Long-tailed Skipper.

Long-tailed Skipper  (Urbanus proteus)

Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)

 

The Black Swallowtail is also available in a yellow variety for your viewing pleasure. The yellow version is more likely to be seen in the southwestern U.S.

Black Swallowtail  (Papilio polyxenes)

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

 

A small flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe will be missed during the summer as it’s a migrant. We have had one stay in our back yard for the past four winters.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

 

This is a small portion of a huge flock of Tree Swallows which swirled up out of one of the area’s vast palmetto scrubs. In another area, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds found a grassy plain in which to feed.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

 

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

Blue defined. It’s hard to believe this hue exists in nature but no photo manipulation needed for these beauties! This guy was concerned about a hawk flying overhead.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

 

Even from the rear, an Eastern Meadowlark is simply gorgeous. Subtle browns and outrageous yellow and black. The clear tones of their song soothes souls.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

 

 

Our trip was planned. Our plans were deficient. Our day was superb. We hope all of your plans work to perfection. If they don’t, persevere and perhaps you, too, will be pleasantly surprised!

 

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

 

Additional Information

Avon Park Air Force Range

(NOTE: Entrance to the Avon Park Air Force Range is controlled and a fee is required. Be sure to check their website at the link above for the appropriate phone number to call and check for closures before you go. They are open to the public only Thursday through Monday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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