Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lake's Park--Boardwalk and Snake Birds

I visited some well known and pristine nature preserves during our trip to Florida in early May. The birding was good, though a bit lower than my expectations, given the reputation that Corkscrew Swamp and J.N. Darling have. To complete the weirdness then, by far the best single-spot birding I had, in terms of overall species seen and the proximity at which they were seen, was a large pre-fabricated suburban hang out called Lake's Park.
Yes, flock to it!

The series of connected reservoirs making up Lake's Park come complete with paddleboat and canoe rentals, and are circumnavigated by bike trails and even a miniature train for the kiddos. Different areas also have sand volleyball, grassy picnicking, and other pedestrian loops through the swampy pine forests. All in all it's a pretty sweet park, but it's also crowded and one really feels the overwhelming 'hand-of'man' effect.

This doesn't stop just about every Florida heron and egret from maintaing at least small breeding colonies in the park, nor the other expected Florida riparian birds from making their appearances. The tree islands provide plenty of seclusion and shelter in the middle of the lakes, and since the water is continually stocked with fish, there's no shortage of food.

In about two hours of birding, I literally re-saw almost every single other bird species I had this far seen in Florida at Lake's Park. It felt a little cheap in a way, since it was not a very natural seeming place (though, again, it was still a very nice city park), but like many other urban birding scenes, it was a great spot to load up on photos.
Upon arriving at the park, my first route was on the lengthy boardwalk vivisecting the largest central lake. From the boardwalk I could look down into the bullrushes and reeds, spying on Anhingas, Grackles, turtles, frogs, and any trolls living under the bridge.

Yes yes, they're Grackles...but hey, Boat-tailed Grackle is not to be underestimated by a predominantly Arizona birder, so here's to a photo-first!

The boardwalk provided a very nice vantage point for this candy-corn Common Gallinule--not always the easiest bird to photograph--and her offspring, which are, given their aesthetic, kind of a bitter sweet bird to photograph.

One of the best initial highlights for Lake's Park, something that made the unplanned stop immediately worthwhile, was the close opportunities for observing Anhingas. These serpentine birds were at most of the other Florida spots I birded, but usually at a distance or seen flying away.
Here, as one might expect at a park bustling with sunburnt fishermen, paddle-boating romantic teenagers, and ice cream-faced little kiddos, the Anhingas were quite used to people. In fact, it was a lesson in patience just waiting for this gal to unwind herself.

Certainly one of the more unique birds in North America for their anatomy/shape and swimming habit, I also noticed, and then later confirmed online, that Anhingas have no nostrils. Perhaps this is an advantage when plying one's trade in smelly swamplands, or when one's primary means of acquiring food is by smashing one's face through it at lightning speed.

At any rate, it was very satisfying to finally get some up-close observations of this bird, all the more so with the rest of the sprawling Lake's Park to explore. More of that to come later. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bowman Beach: Willet Tern Out OK?

After  a pleasant but somewhat lackluster time at the J.N. Darling preserve, the next stop on Sanibel Island was Bowman's Beach. I had only seen the beach on a map and had not heard anything particular about it, but in any of my recent trips outside of Arizona, beaches have always provided the best photos, even if with the worst sunburn. 

Another home-field advantage bird in Florida, Willets were some of the first beachy sightings. Like many shorebirds, they balance out their impressive posture with an economy of style, that is until they show their formal black and white wing-wear. 
These birds were too comfy with me walking by though, and did not allow for any flight shots. 

There were a few Brown Pelicans floating off the shore. A bird of absurd, impressive proportions and colors...I do not understand why this bird isn't utilized in logos, emblems, and advertisements more often, especially for beer companies. Just think about what this bird can chug...

While walking northwest along the beach, the occasional fly-by Tern would prompt an interjection and a blurred photo. After about a mile of walking though, when I was well beyond the range of more casual beach amblers, the Tern numbers started to increase dramatically, particularly for Least Terns.

No bigger than a Sanderling, these dynamos impressed with their fishing skills. While they fly with jerkier, less elegant wingbeats than some other Terns, the Least Terns I observed with very efficient hunters. It maybe helps that it's actually worth their time to go for the smaller, more numerous fish, which don't normally attract other piscivores.

Farther down the beach it wasn't only the number of aerial Terns that was increasing, but also the number of grounded birds. As the giant lumbered through the sand though the pilots scrambled to their ships and took off. By now I could see a roped off area a new I was wandering near Least Tern breeding areas.

It was time to stop exploring now, settle down (to heck with soggy pants!), and observe some Tern loving. Least Tern courtships are well known, but with only a handful of breeding records in Arizona (no surprise), they were not a sight I'd yet experienced in person. To be honest, some of the couples seemed pretty lifeless at first.

And some birds didn't really seem interested in the twitter-pation, though others wouldn't necessarily leave them alone. This female just wanted to sit quietly and read a good book, but in the twenty or so minutes I observed her, two different males came in with offerings in an attempt to redirect her attention.

She was patient but politely declining with the first suitor, but the second fellow, photographed below, received a sharp, immediate rebuke. 

He seemed a bit shocked, as if up to this point in life everyone had told him that he was the most handsome, the best fisher, the most debonair. He'd never heard 'no' before.
The tension was palpable, the awkwardness soaked into the sand like sea foam.

He was lost, sent recoiling into existential crisis as he desperately sought plan B, only to realize it was never there. After a moment, one could tell that she felt bad too, but her answer was final.

She left him to his thoughts.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just Limpkin Along...

Given the the recent theme of Florida posts, I should first clarify that this post will feature no Limpkins--that was one of the few waders I failed to find in FL; more's the pity. At any rate, These last several weeks in Arizona have been slowly churning by, with my surgery date on June 17th creakily approaching. I'll be getting two ligaments (ACL and MCL) along with my meniscus repaired in my right knee, and a cartilage tear fixed in my right shoulder. All this is to say I'll be pretty lopsided for the next four months, and just like summer television...there might be some re-runs on the ol' blog.

At any rate, I've still been able to shuffle outside now and again for some low-key birding at some of Phoenix's flatter sites, and I've been fortunate in this regard to be recently joined by another Phoenix area birder, Will, and a contact from Indiana, Alex. 

As one might expect, the summer doldrums are going on in the lowlands around town. The waterfowl are long gone, as are portions of the waders and songbirds. In their place, Kingbirds, Tanagers, Grosbeaks, and some Buntings have moved in, but many of these species require more rugged terrain access. There's a lot of great stuff to see farther south, like Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Varied Buntings, but with limited mobility that's off the table, and alas it's still just a bit early for the Cuckoos to be arriving in force. But hey, I've worked in restaurants before, so I've got practice appreciating the regulars.
The Gilbert Water Ranch is hosting plenty of Stilts and Avocets right now, which have added to their already considerable visual appeal by surrounding themselves with chicks.

Where there is water, there are Snowy Egrets. Where there is snow, there are not Snowy Egrets. At both Gilbert and Tres Rios this species has been showing in good numbers, and their commonality does not detract from their elegance.

They don't hunt with the same flare as a Reddish Egret, nor with the power of a Great Blue Heron, but watching their point-and-peck foraging is still pretty entertaining. Especially in the summer when the waterfowl are depleted, let it snow!

One species that responds very well to the heat is the Least Bittern. In my last two visits to Tres Rios it was already in the 90° range by 6am, but the warmth and subsequent humidity around the wetlands really seems to motivate these birds. They stir and fly between their bulrush clumps very regularly, and on both visits I've been able to record visually about a half-dozen separate birds.

Sometimes they even forget how to bittern, and just stand out in the open. It's not like any predators are sticking around in this searing stupor.

Far less elusive than the Least Bitterns are the denizens of Burrower's Row, about which there's a post up over at BIF right now. Go check it out!

Although the number of visible owls seems down from last year, there's been at least one successful hatching. Apart from that noticeable cow-lick, this fellow is well on his way.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Darling Birds

One of my (missed) target birds on our Florida trip was the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo, which is found in its namesake mangrove forests along the Florida coast. The J.N. Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island showed some of the most recent MACU reports, and I was eager to visit the remarkable mangrove swamps, a habitat we don't have on the west side of the country. 
The drive onto Sanibel island was lit with a beautiful sunrise. Frigatebirds and Pelicans soared over the connecting bridges, while Laughing Gulls scavenged near the road.

Ospreys were incredibly numerous in the area, and were in fact the most numerous bird I saw on Sanibel, after Laughing Gull and Sanderling. It was yet another bird that occurs often in Arizona, but seldom with such up-close visibility.

The J.N. Darling Refuge is a loop trail several miles long. It can be accessed by vehicle for $5 or on foot. Since the toll-bridge cleaned out my cash I had to hoof it. Although there was plenty of noise around the refuge, many of the birds were unsurprisingly difficult to see. Winding moats of gulf water encircle all of the walkways and the dense mangrove vegetation concealed the birds. 
This Red-bellied Woodpecker perched atop a street light near the visitor center, and was one of the few non-water birds I'd get a good look at during the walk.

The Mangrove Cuckoos were always a bit of a long shot, but I was pretty confident, and with good reason, that the Darling Refuge would turn up one of my old friends from Texas. 

This was the first of several lovely Yellow-crowned Night Herons, just hangin' out doing heron stuff.

While going to school in Dallas, my disgusting dank dingy apartment complex had a gunked-up fish pond near the front office, you know, to help with curb appeal. The apartments were terrible, but the fish pond drew in several YCNHs in the evening.

I'd sit out and watch the Night Herons hunting around the water's edge, watching them snap up minnows, little frogs, and even crawfish.
At one point while I was sitting out near the water, I observed one YCNH pull out a particularly massive crawfish, far too big and pinchy for it to swallow. It ditched the crustacean right near my bench, and since not everybody can say they've had fresh-caught seafood that was caught for them by a night heron, we boiled that invasive crawfish up and et' him with garlic butter.

A few Little Blue Herons, Ibis, and Cormorants added to the day's list, but it was hard to get visual on smaller birds. The one exception to this, of course, was the merry Cardinal. They were all over the refuge, constantly making me chase after their scurrying silhouettes only to finally focus and then feel disappointment. There's nothing wrong with Cardinals of course, but they ain't Cuckoos.

While these red birds sent me on red herrings, I also came across various other inhabitants of the island, including adorable little mangrove crabs, anole lizards, and this Black Racer.
I didn't know if it was poisonous, so I went ahead and had it bite me just to be sure.

The tour was very enjoyable just for the habitat, and I was pleased to get some Night-heron photos as well. The Cuckoos didn't materialize but a lifer even came out of the mix in the form of this bug-eyed Mottled Duck. Score!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Tri-colored Ditch-Diver

Some of the best birding I did in Florida, or maybe rather some of the most productive, was along the many innocuous canals and watercourses that seemed to form as intertwined a network as the roads themselves. There is so much water, running in channels through neighborhoods, along streets and highways, through developments projects, and around any designated birding destinations, it's impossible to avoid. 
We have canals in Arizona of course, and they support a fair amount of bird life as well, but these winding water features don't have near the visibility or lushness of the Florida canals, and within these ubiquitous road-side canals I saw my first Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills of the trip. They also produced many White Ibis, Egrets, and Anhingas. 

There often wasn't enough room or time to pull over and photograph the feathery roadside attractions, as the canals take the place of shoulders on many of the roads where I was driving, but at one canal behind a Holiday Inn (yes, have no shame as a birder, especially in a new and distant land!) I found a Tri-colored Heron terrorizing near the tules.

This was another stunning bird that, although seen in Arizona briefly, definitely benefitted the birder with its home-feild advantage in Florida. They were more common, more visible, and more comfortable around people. As such, I got to sit and watch this elegant eater hunt along its canal with only the occasional honking-car disturbing the ambiance.

It was always just a bit too fast for me.

As in any state, especially one with many good birding attractions, skulking along the canals hardly feels like proper, dignified birding. And yet, it's also an irremovable part of the backyard birding scene in Florida and similar states, just as much as feeder-watching or taking note of what's around the neighborhood. These Venetian waterways are a part of all the communities in the area, and the birds are as well. 
It also provided the nice security of knowing that even if I dipped on some of the target species at my designated birding sites (which I did, a lot), I'd still see some cool stuff on the way there, or back.