Saturday, March 30, 2013

Birding Rookery Bay and Fakahatchee Strand

While we were staying on Marco Island we briefly visited Shell Island Road in Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The former site of Briggs Nature Center has been closed and converted into an office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and houses law-enforcement personnel. However, there was a volunteer interpreter available at the overlook at the far end of the 0.5 mile boardwalk loop. Controlled burns were going on and this limited our exploration of the area.

Along the road we saw this Red-shouldered Hawk.

Red-shouldered Hawk 20130311
An endangered Gopher Tortoise was crossing Shell Island Road in front of our car. An oncoming vehicle had already stopped. The tortoise wasted no time moving off the roadway and disappeared in the roadside brush.
Gopher Tortoise in road 20130311

Gopher Tortoise 20130311

We walked a short nature trail at the far end of Shell Road and saw several Hermit Thrushes.
Hermit Thrush 2-20130311
There was also a poorly-maintained Catclaw Trail that yielded this close view of a Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron 20130311
On our way back home we stopped at Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, an elongated strip of Bald Cypress forest about 20 miles long and five miles wide which is dotted by many lakes. Fakahatchee (which means "dark water") is the ancient name that was used by the indiginous people for the extensive swamp along the western border of the Everglades in southwestern Florida. "Strand" is defined as a beach, or the land bordering a body of water. Big Cypress National Preserve occupies over 1,100 square miles to the east of Fakahatchee Strand.

"Beneath a protective canopy of bald cypress trees is a slow-moving slough that shields the forest interior from extreme cold temperatures, and this fosters a high level of rare and endangered tropical plant species. The Strand is the only place in the world where bald cypress and royal palm trees share the forest canopy, and it also contains 44 native orchids and 14 native bromeliad species. It's a haven for wildlife as well, and Florida panthers, Florida black bears, Eastern indigo snakes, Everglades minks, and diamondback terrapins can still be found here. The migratory bird life is quite spectacular as well." Reference:

On our last visit to Big Cypress Bend we encountered a Black Bear which ran ahead of Mary Lou on the boardwalk before jumping off and hiding in the brush only several yards away. We did not see any bears this time. Spring migration had not yet picked up, and there were remarkably few birds.

The boardwalk traverses a cypress forest with some trees that are over 1,000 years old.

Big Cypress HDR 20130312
This old bald cypress had an interesting bark pattern.
Old Bald Cypress HDR 20130312
A Bald Eagle nest has been active every year since 1991. This year a single eaglet was reared. It was almost ready to fly, and roosted nearly out of sight on a branch in the nest tree. Here is the huge nest.
Bald Eagle nest at Big Cypress Bend 20130312
We saw colorful Northern Cardinals...
Northern Cardinal 20130312
...Great Crested Flycatchers...
Great Crested Flycatcher 20130312
...a Black-and-White Warbler...
Black-andWhite Warbler 20130312
...and a pair of Carolina Wrens that provided me with some of the best photos I have ever obtained of this species. They were courting, singing a duet and seemed to ignore our presence.
Carolina Wren 2-20130312

Carolina Wren 3-20130312

Back home, our local Bald Eagle youngster was preparing for free flight. Here she exercises her wings and is able to rise a few inches above the nest platform.
Bald Eaglet 2-20130317On March 26, multiple observers reported that the eaglet was not seen at the nest. The next morning we arrived there around 9:30 AM and found the nest empty with no eagles in sight. At 9:50 an adult suddenly appeared on the nest, having flown into the wind from behind. It immediately began eating what looked like very fresh bloody prey. It was possibly the male adult, judging by the low forehead (little angle between beak and forehead). This is the expected behavior of the adults after the eaglet leaves the nest. Hunger will normally drive the youngster to return to the nest to be fed within 2-3 days-- at least that has been our experience. We heard no vocalizations to suggest the presence of the eaglet. 
Bald Eagle adult at nest 6-20130327

Bald Eagle adult at nest 4-20130327
At about 85 days of age, this eaglet was well prepared for flight, even though she did not appear to be as active and did not climb up on branches for 2-3 days before fledging, as we have seen in the past. Normally the newly fledged eaglet will climb up to the upper branches of one of the trees in the local wooded area, then travel back to the nest by taking short flights from one treetop to another.

The next day only the female parent was visible, roosting on a snag near the nest.
Bald Eagle roosting 5-20130328
Just as expected, after three days of anxious waiting on the part of the eagle watchers, the eaglet returned to the nest. 
Eaglet 20130402
We generally expect her to return there to be fed for another 4 to six weeks as she gains hunting skills and independence.  The female parent was standing guard nearby.
Bald Eagle adult female 20130402
She flew out in front of the nest and provided a great photo opportunity
Bald Eagle female in flight 20130402
Bald Eagle female in flight 3-20130402

Follow events and photos on my Bald Eagles of Broward County FORUM

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Knot in Tigertail

There was a new moon on March 11, when large numbers of Horseshoe Crabs emerged to lay their eggs. Mary Lou and I saw this Red Knot at Tigertail Beach, Marco Island in southwest Florida. It has a blue flag on its left leg with the letters TNP and a yellow band on its right leg. Its plumage is quite faded, not showing any of the warm salmon hues that develop by May. 

This species takes one of the longest known migratory flights, traveling 9,300 miles from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. In spring it depends on the availability of Horseshoe Crab eggs, moving northward up the Atlantic coast in step with the latter's egg-laying cycle which peaks every two weeks with each full and new moon.

I visited the website and discovered that this bird was first captured and banded in Avalon, New Jersey on November 11, 2005.  In November of the next three years it was sighted on the New Jersey coast; in 2009 it appeared in Virginia in May, then back in New Jersey in August. There were no sightings in 2010, but multiple sightings were reported back in Avalon, New Jersey during November, 2011. The only sighting during 2012 was on a New Jersey beach. 

Then it turned up on Tigertail Beach on February 27 of this year, lingering here for at least two weeks to refuel. (Click on photos for enlarged views)
Red Knot 2 bands 20130311
Tigertail was the nickname of Thlocklo Tustenuggee, a Florida Seminole Indian Chief who was honored as a "War Leader" during the Second Seminole Indian War. Tigertail was known for wearing a long belt cut from panther skin that trailed down from his waist like a tail. His name is found on several streets and neighborhoods up the Florida coast.

The knot was the first I have ever photographed, and I was rewarded with three more "first photos." Two were plovers. Several tiny Snowy Plovers ran along the shore like wind-up toys. Since they nest on beaches they are subject to disturbance and require protection during the breeding season.

Snowy Plover 2-20130311
Wilson's Plover was another bird I had not yet photographed. This is an adult male. Note its large black bill and pale pinkish legs. They are half again larger than the Snowy Plover, weighing in at a little over 2 ounces.
Wilson's Plover 20130311
The female Wilson's Plover is much paler in color.
Wilson's Plover immature 20130311
The male Wilson's Plovers were singing loudly. Listen to this brief video clip. I had never before heard their song.
Similar in plumage but smaller, the 1.6 ounce Semipalmated Plover sports a shorter two-tone bill and brighter orange legs. It owes its name to the fact that its toes are only partially webbed.
Semipalmated Plover 2-20130311 The Black-bellied Plover is our largest plover, weighing in at about a half pound (six times the weight of the tiny Snowy Plover). Black-bellied Plover 20130301 I We also saw Killdeer, making it a five-plover day. Other shorebirds included the Ruddy Turnstone... Ruddy Turnstone 2-20130311 ...numerous Dunlins... Dunlin 20130311  ...Sanderlings... Sanderling 20130201 ...a Willet... Willet 2-20130311 ...Least Sandpipers, with tell-tale yellow legs... Least Sandpiper 20130311 ...and two Short-billed Dowitchers that probed the mud in sewing-machine fashion, gobbling up the Horseshoe Crab eggs. Short-biled Dowitcher 3-20130311 An Osprey nest at the edge of the dunes contained some clothing and an unusual fishing accessory. Ospreys equipped to go fishing 20130311  White Ibises competed for crab eggs  at the water's edge. wHITE iBIS 20130311 Brown Pelicans dove for fish offshore. Brown Pelican 3-20130311 Just outside the entrance to the beach, Burrowing Owls nested in vacant lots. They were provided with low T-shaped roosts and orange tape was placed around their homes to discourage close approach.  
Burrowing Owl 2-20130311 
This one struck an interesting pose.. Burrowing Owl 4-20130311

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Corkscrew Swamp, March 10, 2013

We arrived back in Florida on Thursday, and on Saturday we drove out to stay on Marco Island for a couple of nights and meet up with some friends who are visiting family in Naples. We had planned time for birding while there, and on the way back and forth. On the first day our route took us out I-75 ("Alligator Alley") through the heart of the Everglades and Corkscrew Swamp.

We always look forward to our visits to the National Audubon Society Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, about 100 miles west of our South Florida home. During winter, it is a reliable place to see Painted Buntings and Pileated Woodpeckers, two very photogenic birds, not to mention the Red-shouldered Hawks, Barred Owls and all the herons that may be observed conveniently from the boardwalk.
Corkscrew Blair Center HDR 20130310
Although other visitors said they had seen Painted Buntings at the feeders just outside the back door of the Center, we saw none and decided to look again on our way back. A pair of Common Ground-Doves fed on seed that had scattered under the feeders.
Common Ground-Dove 3-20130310
A female Northern Cardinal visited the feeder and got up close and personal.
Northern Cardinal 20130310
A Red-bellied Woodpecker joined the feast.
Red-bellied Woodpecker 20130310
Yes indeed, its belly is (a tiny bit) red!
Red-bellied Woodpecker 3-20130310
An interpretive sign provided a map of the varied habitats as the boardwalk courses from the higher dry ground to the central marsh (click on images for enlarged views).
Corkscrew Swamp Map 20130310
The well-maintained boardwalk loops 2.25 miles through these habitats. beginning with a dry Slash Pine woodland, a wet prairie, and this stand of Pond Cypress.
Corkscrew Swamp Boardwalk HDR 20130310
Near the start, a four foot long Yellow Rat Snake slithered slowly under the boardwalk,
Yellow Rat Snake 20130310
A Southern Blue Flag Iris bloomed in the wet prairie.
Wild Iris 20110330
A Barred Owl dozed not far from the edge of the boardwalk in an area of mature Bald Cypress and hardwoods.
Barred Owl 20130310
At the Lettuce Lakes we saw long-legged waders, including this White Ibis.
White Ibis 20130310
A Little Blue Heron hunted in the pond...
Little Blue Heron 20130310
...while a preening Great Blue Heron's contortions were amusing.
Great Blue Heron 20130310
A roosting Great Egret scratched its chin.
Great Egret 20130310
Baby American Alligators were being watched over by a parent.
American Alligator baby 20130310
We did not get good looks at many warblers. Most were high in the canopy, but a Pine Warbler put in a brief appearance.
Pine Warbler 2-20130310
Northern Parulas were singing all around, but few provided open shots. This as about the best I could do.
Northern Parula 20130310
Several Great Crested Flycatchers attracted attention by calling out "Weep!"
Great Crested Flycatcher 2-20130310
We got only fleeting glances at Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-shouldered Hawks, but were rewarded at the sight of two male Painted Buntings after we exited the boardwalk. If Mary Lou had not insisted on waiting at the back window for their return I would have missed the best photo opportunity I've ever had with this stunningly beautiful species. I took over 50 images and cannot decide on my favorite.
Painted Bunting 7-20130310

Painted Bunting 3-20130310

Painted Bunting 2-20130310
For old times' sake, here is a Red-shouldered Hawk I photographed at Corkscrew earlier this year. It is wearing "jewelry."
Red-shouldered Hawk 20110313