Saturday, April 20, 2013

Delightful birding on Florida ranches

You may have been following the adventures of the two captive-reared juvenile Whooping Cranes that visited our local patch. They were among the six that were allowed to find their own way south from Wisconsin. Part of the International Crane Foundation's "Direct Autumn Release" experiment, they were not assisted by the "Operation Migration" ultralight aircraft. This year their journey was fraught with danger.

Five of the six departed from Horicon National Wildlife Refuge on the last day of October, 2012 and flew 1200 miles to Clay County, Florida in only six days. Only two days later, on November 8, the flock of 5 was tracked by satellite to Everglades National Park at the southern tip of Florida. The next day they had doubled back nearly 100 miles north to a ranch in Hendry County, Florida. The sixth crane finally migrated from Wisconsin with a flock of Sandhill Cranes in late November and on December 9 had settled down for the winter in Volusia County, Florida.

Three of the five cranes remained in Hendry County, but on December 22, two cranes (a female nicknamed Tussock and a male called Cypress) relocated to the wetlands adjacent to our home in Broward County, about 50 miles to the southeast. Unfortunately, two of the three remaining Hendry County cranes expired on the ranch during late December or early January. As related in an earlier post Tussock suffered an injured foot and had to be captured. After a week of treatment at Disney Animal Kingdom, she was released in Tennessee on February 9 to join a group of other Whooping and Sandhill Cranes. Cypress was subsequently captured on February 10 and released to rejoin the surviving crane "Fireweed" on the J-Seven Ranch in Hendry County.

The ranch owners invited several of us who had provided ground observations in Broward County to come up and see "our" crane, but before we got up there, we were disappointed to hear that Cypress migrated north in late February or early March. For a time Fireweed was also presumed to have died, as his satellite signal constantly pointed to one spot, and ground searches were not successful. Rhonda Roff and Margaret England from the Hendry-Glades Audubon Society joined four of us from South Broward Audubon. Minutes after we enjoyed coffee with John and Gretchen Ward, owners of J-Seven, we received a call that announced, to our great surprise, Fireweed had turned up on a neighboring ranch, Devil's Garden Bird Park (DGBP).

Doug and Catherine Zipperer, owners of DGBP, invited us all to come over. We headed there immediately.

DGBP entry sign 20130414

Neighboring ranchers John Ward and Doug Zipperer chatted as we scoped out the first overgrown pasture.

John Ward and Doug Zipperer 20130414

Devil's Garden Bird Park  provides guided custom birding tours for the public, but the Zipperers extended us the courtesy of lending us an extra Ranger all-terrain vehicle so that we could travel cross-country if necessary. 

Watching the cranes at DGBP 4-20130414

Fireweed was readily located, foraging with a flock of Sandhill Cranes near the entrance road.

Whooping Crane Number 16-12 4-20130414

Sandhills and Whooping Crane no 16 20130414

A Crested Caracara posed on a fence post.

Crested Caracara 20130414

Many Eastern Meadowlarks sang in the prairie.

Eastern Meadowlark 20130414

Red-shouldered Hawks were conspicuously present.

Red-shouldered Hawk 3-20130414

As we approached a beautiful native Cabbage Palm-Live Oak Hammock, Swallow-tailed Kites wheeled overhead.

Swallow-tailed Kite 20130414

Inside the hammock, a pair of Barred Owls flew towards us, most likely because their newly-fledged young were hidden deeper in the trees. We did not advance, but watched the owls as they called "Who cooks for you?".

Barred Owl 20130414

We returned to J-Seven, where John Ward guided us on a tour of wonderfully varied habitats. Two newly-fledged Bald Eagles flew up in front of us.

Bald Eagle juveniles 20130414

A little while later they returned to their nest to feed.

Bald Eagle juveniles at nest 20130414

An adult eagle flew high overhead.

Bald Eagle adult in flight 20130414

In a well-concealed nest, two Red-shouldered Hawk chicks waited to be fed.

Red-shouldered Hawk chicks 20130414

Red-shouldered Hawk nest 20130414

Several pairs of Burrowing Owls nested in berms on the grazing land.

Burrowing Owls 20130414

Burrowing Owls 2-20130414

Glossy Ibises foraged in the wet prairies.

Glossy Ibises 20130414

In the wetlands, we had magnificent views of Roseate Spoonbills.

Roseate Spoonbills with Great Egret 20130414

Roseate Spoonbills 20130414

Roseate Spoonbills in flight 20130414

A flock of Wild Turkeys scurried in the tree groves.

Wild Turkey 20130414

A wild sow hurried away with her piglets as we approached.

Wild sow with piglets 20130414

Caracaras nested in the top of a Cabbage Palm.

Crested Caracara in flight 20130414

Crested Caracara 3-20130414

We really worked up an appetite, and Gretchen spread out a delicious lunch for us in the chickee. Their hospitality was overwhelmingly warm! From left to right, Barry Heimlich, John Ward, Gretchen Ward, Helen Harringer, John Abbott, Margaret England, and Rhonda Roff.

Lunch in the Chickee at J-7 2-20130414


  1. Wow, amazing birds and photos! Well done, Ken!

  2. once again, ken, you amaze me! just one of these sightings would absolutely thrill me, and you have such a huge variety all at once! thank you for sharing!!!

  3. What a wonderful place to visit. Your pictures are so vivid. I really enjoy your blog.

  4. Really nice Ken. Of course, all of this would happen AFTER I moved out of South Florida! I've birded the J-7 Ranch hundreds of times with my best bird there being an Upland Sandpiper. Never did make it to the Devil's Garden Bird Park. I guess paying to look at birds doesn't sit right with me. Anyway, nice blog entry. -- Vince

  5. It's amazing to see all of that on one trip! So many great shots. That caracara is still on my list.

  6. Ken, what a great opportunity! Superb photographs!
    I'm really glad you were able to follow up on Fireweed!

  7. Well, I got an error message the first time I tried to post a comment. I'll try again...

    In condensed version: "I love happy endings"...and the crane, Fireweed spotted was an extraordinary story!!!

    Loved all the other images Ken. [I forgot what I tried to post the first time. LOL]

  8. Great series!! Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  9. so many gorgeosu birdshots. Love every one of them. :)

  10. Very lovely birds, great variety.

  11. A great series of photos. Such a variety of birds - but I think seeing and photographing the Crane would have been the most exciting!

  12. This is just a wonderful post, Ken. I had only known about this story from your posts; nothing on the news "all the way" over here in Lee County...I'd sure rather read this kind of local news in the paper than what they have.

    We saw whooping cranes in Texas when we wintered there and I will never forget seeing them. Good luck to our remaining Florida ones. I wonder if they will return next season.

  13. What a grand tour! You got some marvellous photos. The Caracaras are interesting looking.

  14. Hi Ken,
    Absolutely loved reading your post. A plethora of wonderful sightings on your adventure.I kept thinking I had a favorite until I kept scrolling down. :)
    I did really like the Crested Caracara on the post, the Eagle, the burrowing owls and the spoonbills in flight.
    Wonderful photography work!

  15. Wonderful series. I love the owls.

  16. Great set of pictures - I think all of these birds would be a lifer for me.

    One day perhaps.

    Cheers and thanks for linking to WBW

    Stewart M - Melbourne

  17. Old Fireweed had you guessing for a while there Ken. I reckon he ditched the evidence of what he was getting up to. A cracking set of pictures you posted too - the Barred Owl looks very concerned, meanwhile the Burrowing Owls so remind me of our UK Little Owl. I am so impressed with your caracara shots - a wonderful looking raptor. Good to see the birding troops eating a hearty lunch.

  18. What a great birding trip! Wish I could go on one too as I find it hard to spot birds with my old eyes.

  19. Beautiful series of photos.
    The crested caracara is my favorite.
    Regards, Irma

  20. Oh, yes what a beautiful young Birds with you that I really have never seen!
    Thanks for there

  21. What a magnificent entry, full of amazing images and also interesting script on the Cranes, though sad for some, others made it and that is so important!

  22. Wow! So many great shots. I love the Caracara on the fence post!

  23. Amazing post! Enjoyed my visit here!

  24. Awesome shots! Such beautiful creatures!

  25. Wow, it looks like you had a great time, so many birds!

  26. Just got word that female #13 (Tussock) has died, and at this time the location of male #15 (Cypress) is unknown.


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