Birding in Beautiful Places

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A picture paints a thousand words






Common Yellowthroat

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Had brilliant looks at a male Common Yellowthroat today. There has been a big influx of this species in Tallahassee in recent days, one doesn’t have to try too hard to find one. You’ll probably hear their call before you catch a glimpse of their brilliant yellow plumage. Sometimes getting a decent look can test the commitment of the most patient birders amongst us; those who remain steadfast will be rewarded. This one particular male refused to come out of hiding for 5 minutes but my patience was finally rewarded and for a full 2 minutes he gave crippling views down to 10 feet, I even managed a couple of half decent pictures.



The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

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Ok, for those of you who aren’t friends with me on Facebook here’s a short explanation about why I’m telling the soon to be written story you’re about to read. Savvy? Ok. Yesterday I changed my Facebook profile picture to….


Some of my birding friends had seen it before but some hadn’t. The comments ranged from WTF to the usual derogatory accusations I’m all too used to. Yes you Hedden!

Ok, so a few years ago on Boxing Day (google it yanks) 2011, John Murphy picked me up at the Lake Ella Publix in Tallahassee and headed west on I-10. Project Greenshores in Pensacola was our destination. King Eider was our target bird. We arrived at 0 dark thirty and sat in the comfort of John’s swanky sedan. Boredom got the better of us so we scanned the bay and could make out a few distant dark blobs all of which could’ve been a King Eider but were most likely scaup. After what seemed like an eternity the sun began to rise, its attempts to brighten the dawn thwarted by fine drizzle and battleship gray clouds. I was in England, at least in spirit. John was first to spot the King as it swam out from behind an oyster bar. My first emotion at a successful twitch is most often relief followed swiftly by joy. We got ridiculously close looks at the King which to me was not at all unusual. I’d gotten close to them before in Scotland and New Jersey.


John and I soon realized we were very cold, a bit damp and very much in need of sustenance. A bagel cafe lay across the street. Caffeine beckoned. Bob Wallace and Dotty Robbins were racing west towards our location. Why they didn’t plan to be there at dawn only they will know. We tucked into our breakfast, I chimped through my pics. Joy!

Dotty called John, she had arrived and was with Bob and Lucy Duncan. They couldn’t find the King. I made some derogatory remark about blindness. Well we walked back across the street and we couldn’t find it either. As I was walking along the trail I saw something lying in the water. It was a bird. It had orange legs. My heart sank. I reached down and scooped the King out of the water. The King was dead. I walked over to the others and declared rather solemnly that I’d found him. All of our hearts sank. So sad. John called Bob to tell him the bad news. Dotty volunteered to deliver the King to Andy Kratter at UF to be skinned and preserved. We headed home. We stopped to see my life Green-tailed Towhee in Washington Co. A bittersweet day, another twitching tale to tell. Cause of death? Starvation. The poor thing was incredibly under weight. The stress of the journey, unfamiliar habitat, weird looking birds like pelicans…all a bit too much for a duck that doesn’t wander too far from the frigid Arctic and Northern Oceans. He’ll be long remembered in Florida ornithological history.


Ooo baby, ooo baby…oooooo!

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Thanks Mark Hedden for the inspiration


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

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I never will get tired of watching this species.


Now, if only I could do one justice with my camera ūüė≥

Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival: Pat IV – Key West Quail-Dove

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Most of my birding friends recognize that I am very optimistic when the conversation of whether any rarities are likely to be found close to where I am at any given moment. I’ve long recognized that I’ve been riding a wave of luck. I am a lucky birder but I also have a habit of being in the right place at the right time, Where and when rare birds show up is somewhat predictable. Sometimes the species are predictable but not always. During the lead up to the festival I made myself aware of what rarities could potentially turn up. However, when the discovery of a rarity¬†takes place¬†I am always surprised, which is what makes birding so exciting. It’s somewhat predictable but totally unpredictable at the same time.

On the Saturday of the festival, I found myself co-leading a field trip with Rafa again. This time we were exploring one or two different sites in the Big Pine Key area. We were having a great time looking at shorebirds such as Wilson’s Plover at Ohio Key, and Swainson’s Thrush at the Blue Hole in the National Key Deer Refuge. By keys standards migration had been a little on the slow side, which by Tallahassee standards¬†would actually be described as¬†a fallout!

Rafa’s phone rang and it soon became readily apparent that a rarity had been found. A KEY WEST QUAIL-DOVE! A MEGA! It was at Long Key State Park on the backside of the Golden Orb Trail. Our field trip participants were more than keen to give us the green light and we all jumped in our vehicles and caravanned back north to Long Key. Alex Harper was on site and did a great job of relaying messages back to us regarding the birds situation. Perched and showing well! It took us a while to get there and when we arrived Alex was waiting for us. Bad news! The dove had dropped to the ground and was feeding. What was the big deal? The thick vegetation made it nigh on impossible to see it. That didn’t deter us and all 20 of us tiptoed along the trail to where Kerry Ross was waiting. You could’ve heard a pin drop it was so quiet. We spread out along the trail and sat down, enabling a better view of the hammock floor and hopefully the dove. Minutes ticked by, hours ticked by. The dove sang on and off tantalizing us. Some of us left to go use the bathroom and stretch our legs and while we were gone….Yes you’ve guessed it, the bird was spotted by Jeff Bouton and a couple of folks from our field trip. Bollocks! This time I was staying put. Most of the other folks were determined too.

I positioned myself so I could see an open patch of hammock floor which was¬†dappled in¬†sunlight. I kept myself from going bored by watching a couple of Ovenbirds, a Northern Parula and a very confiding Red-bellied Woodpecker. I was cold searching the ground about 100 feet into the hammock when I noticed something move. I suddenly saw a bright flash of brilliant color. I couldn’t believe it, there was the dove, almost completely obscured by roots, twigs, vines and leaves. It turned its head and I saw the brilliant white stripe below the eye. My heart was pounding and I announced to the group that I was “on the bird.” I can’t imagine how frustrating it was because unless you were siting right next to me or behind me the bird was completely hidden. Angel and Mariel Abreu managed to get glimpses of it as it walked slowly away and down a slight decline. Angel practically sat on my shoulders to see where I was looking. Minutes later the bird coooed from nearby. Several folks saw it fly up into the canopy and drop down again later. It continued call throughout the remainder of the day and the next morning but sightings were very few and far between. Key West Quail-Dove are extremely shy and it was no doubt aware of the 20-30 birders staring into the trees. On the morning that he found it, Joel Wilcox managed to see where it was perched and when Alex and Kerry arrived they were so lucky that the bird remained perched, just hanging out, no cares in the world. Both Alex and Kerry got sick pictures of it.

Key West Quail-Dove perched
despite its name the Key West Quail-Dove is a very rare vagrant to the Florida Keys and Miami area. It was first discovered in Key West where it once bred but was soon extirpated from the keys due to development and loss of habitat. They can now be found in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico where they are common but declining due to overhunting and habitat loss. picture by Alex Harper

Long Key State Park is perhaps the most undervalued, under birded site in Florida when you consider its history and potential. The only time it gets consistent coverage is during the Florida Keys Hawkwatch season when each morning the hawk counters take it in turns to survey the site. So far this year they have found Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Yellow-green Vireo. Scarce warbler species such as Canada and Wilson’s have also been found. Over the years many rare birds have been found at the park and it’s always a great site to see some of the breeding specialties that the keys are renowned for; Mangrove Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon and Black-whiskered Vireo. If covered more often this site will produce.

Long Key State Park eBird checklist

Long Key State Park – GFBWT webpage

So, next time you’re birding in the Florida Keys be sure to head to this gem of a park and bird the Golden Orb trail. Tread softly, you just never know what you will find.

Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival: Part III – Hawkwatch

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When describing the experiences one can have at the Hawkwatch at Curry Hammock State Park over time, one could easily run out of superlatives. Why? Well for starters it’s the Peregrine migration capital of the world, more Peregrine’s have been counted there in a single day than at any other site. Over 600! I’m no mathematician but I reckon that’s about one-per-minute during the typical daily count period the projects hawk counters are present for.

A Peregrine cruises over the hawk watch one of over 100 that were counted on the Saturday of the 2014 festival
A Peregrine cruises over the hawk watch one of over 100 that were counted on the Saturday of the 2014 festival

16 species of raptor and 2 species of vulture were counted during the 2013 fall season.

data from 2013 Florida Keys Hawkwatch
data provided by the Florida Keys Hawk watch

But for me the most exciting thing about the hawk watch is not the hawks! Whaaa…..Oh, don’t get me wrong watching them is a thrilling experience and the Peregrine Falcon is my spark bird after all. I could watch ‘em all day. However, the hawk watch has started to develop a reputation for the extraordinary diurnal migration of non-raptors.

VIS MIG, short for Visible Migration is something we Europeans have been digging for some time at sites such as Breskens in Holland, Falsterbo in Sweden and Gibraltar in well, Gibraltar! Stick a European birder on a dike, headland, or jetty to watch all manner of birds migrating and they are in heaven. You see for the most part we don’t have the opportunity to actually see birds migrating. Most of them do it at night when most of us are sleeping. Even when we’re not sleeping, we can only hear them at night except for Superman. Yes, he is real!

So, I was always aware that the Curry Hammock Hawkwatch was pretty spectacular for watching Peregrines et als BUT I was completely oblivious to the VIS MIG events that took place until Rafael Galvez started posting them on the hawk watch website. Words cannot really give you an adequate impression of the VIS MIG experience at the Keys Hawk watch. So check this video out.

And these great pictures.

migrating Blue-gray Gnatcatchers
On Sept. 18 2013 Rafael counted over 650 gnatcatchers flying over the hawk watch is less than an hour!
migrating Eastern Kingbirds
Incredible counts of Eastern Kingbirds were witnessed during early September.
migrating Anhingas
It’s not just songbirds and hawks that migrate through, check out this flock of Anhingas!
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in flight
good numbers of these beautiful tyrannids migrate through in October

And then there are the spectacular flocks of raptors of course. One of my favorite birds to see there is the Magnificent Frigatebird. They come so close to the tower!

magnificent frigatebird in flight

The trees around the hawk watch are often frequented by many species of neotropical songbirds, particularly during a fallout and not to mention the many rarities that have been documented there and at other close by sites.

So don’t, like me, assume that the hawk watch is all about hawks. It’s main purpose is to count the migratory hawks that are heading south for the winter but there are always lots of other cool birds flying past as well and amazing flights can occur completely out of the blue, which makes it all the more exciting. I’ve been to Breskens in Holland, I’ve stood on the dike at Higbee Beach in Cape May…the Florida Keys Hawkwatch is their equal. It is like no other place in Florida or the Southeast United States. It’s been off birder’s radars for too long, it’s time we gave this internationally important site the recognition it deserves. If you’re looking for a fabulous fall experience head to Marathon in the fall between September and October for a few days, I promise you won’t be disappointed and like me you’ll want to make a pilgrimage there year after year after year.

merlin takes off
a Merlin takes flight after a brief rest
Peregrine in flight
On the 10th October 2012 an incredible 651 Peregrine Falcons migrated south past the Florida Keys Hawkwatch – a WORLD RECORD!

Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival: Part II – Big Pine Key to Islamorada

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I was up early on day one of the festival and met up with Rafael for the 30 minute drive to Big Pine Key. We met up with our field trip participants and headed out to the National Key Deer Refuge. No sooner had we turned onto Long Beach Drive when we spotted why the refuge is so named. Two Key Deer were grazing by the side of the road, both of them bucks, one of which had a beautiful set of antlers. Key Deer are a subspecies of White-tailed Deer and are restricted to Big Pine Key. They are much smaller than the White-tails we get elsewhere in Florida, not much bigger than our dog Lucy!

A Key Deer runs across the road on Big Pine Key
lots of Key Deer get hit and killed by cars every year (78 so far in 2014), usually a result of¬†tourists who are driving over the speed limit. If you’re in Key Deer habitat please drive slowly and obey the posted limits.

Most of the folks on the trip had never seen a Key Deer before so it was a real treat to see these two handsome bucks at such close range. We reached our destination shortly after the deer encounter and hiked out along the trail. White-crowned Pigeons were flying out of the buttonwoods and 3 Black-necked Stilts yapped, alerted by our presence. We could hear the chip notes of both Ovenbirds and Northern Waterthrushes.

a Northern Waterthrush
we got nice looks at one or two waterthrushes
a female American Redstart
there were several American Redstarts
a Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warblers are a very common migrant in the keys

On our way back to the cars we found a flock of Gray Kingbirds, which were joined by a Western Kingbird…NICE!

a Western Kingbird perched on overhead wire
Western Kingbirds are a regular migrant through the keys in the fall.

After that exciting find we headed to Bahia Honda State Park another Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail site.

As always there were plenty of shorebirds on the beach at Bahia Honda, feeding on the wrack line. The whaaaa? The Wrack Line…Check this out.

a Piping Plover on the beach
good numbers of Piping Plovers winter in the keys and Bahia Honda State Park is one of the best places to see them
shorebvirds feeding on wrack line
Short-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone pick through the wrack for tasty invertebrates. Without the wrack these birds wouldn’t have much food.

We then headed north and visited Windley Key and Curry Hammock State Park. There were lots of Ovenbirds at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park as well as Black-throated Blue Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos and White-crowned Pigeons. We had great but brief looks at a Florida Purplewing, an absolutely gorgeous tropical butterfly. Our field trip ended at Curry Hammock State Park where a steady flight of raptors were on show from the hawkwatch. Within 30 minutes we had seen several Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, a Northern Harrier, a couple of Swallow-tailed Kites and lots and lots of swallows. It was a fantastic morning with great people. Tomorrow I’ll be writing about the Florida Keys Hawkwatch.

Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival: Part I – Osprey Surge

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I recently had the privilege of attending the 16th annual Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival; I had a great time, meeting old friends, making new friends, eating a lot of Mahi Mahi, and of course enjoying the spectacular fall migration that the keys provides each and every year. I’ll be honest, I had heard about how great it was during migration between Key Largo and the Dry Tortugas but until one witnesses it for oneself it is tough to really appreciate. Over the next few days I’ll be posting regularly about my experiences at the festival, I’ll take a look at historic records from keys migrations in year’s gone-by, and pass on tips on how you can have a magical¬†keys experience of your own.

On day one I co-lead a field trip with Rafael Galvez, who manages the Florida Keys Hawkwatch at Curry Hammock State Park.¬†We had a wonderful time visiting Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail sites in between Big Pine Key and Islamorada enjoying lots of common migrants, such as Northern Waterthrushes, Ovenbirds and Chuck-will’s Widows¬†and local specialties, such as Gray Kingbirds and White-crowned Pigeons. More about this great¬†field trip in tomorrow’s post.

After the field trip Rafael and I headed to the hawkwatch tower; Rafa was presenting a Hawk migration workshop, which was incredibly informative. Clouds were looming on the horizon and a lot of folks left to escape the rain wall that was fast approaching off the Atlantic Ocean. [Mark Thomas: remember Armageddon Day at Buckton?]. Experience has taught the hawkwatch stalwarts that amazing flights of birds can occur ahead or behind a weather system like the one that was now about to hit the Middle Keys. The wind picked up and the rain was falling so hard you could hear it approaching as it fell on the wind troubled ocean surface. Thankfully the hawkwatch tower, a raised bathhouse, has ample shelter so we hunkered down wondering whether the day’s migration has been brought to an abrupt end. Storms move quickly in this part of the world and as the rain began to ease, Kerry, Mo, Bre and Alex (this year’s hawk counters) began to spot Ospreys approaching from the north. Within minutes of the storm’s passage it soon became very apparent that something special was about to take place. For the first 10 minutes they were passing through in small groups of between 3 and 6 birds but the pace soon picked up and the flocks, yes flocks, got bigger and bigger. My biggest flock in one binoc view was 18. Dave Simpson was on the south side of the bathhouse watching them going away from us and he counted over 50 in one scan from east to west. Within the first hour over 300 Ospreys had migrated thru! To put that into context the previous single day record was 340 set on October 1st 2003. That record had now been smashed as the guys had already counted over 80 in the previous 6 hours before this spectacle took place. And then it stopped, just like that. It ended just as suddenly as it had started. The surge was over.


an Osprey glides over

one of many Ospreys migrating over the Florida Keys Hawkwatch

Ospreys are very strong fliers

If you’re like me you’re probably wondering why this happened. It started around 3pm and ended 90 minutes later. Many questions popped into my head. Why this time of day? Were they just caught up in the storm? Do Ospreys normally migrate in loose flocks? My theory is the birds were actually migrating south over the ocean and they were brought close in by the storm. They are very capable of doing this, satellite tagged Ospreys have demonstrated their ability for long-distance migration over water. The storm came in off the ocean so that would support my somewhat uneducated guess. That is what makes migration so fascinating and why migration in the keys is so amazing. It’s also why projects like the Florida Keys Hawkwatch are incredibly important. Without it we’d know nothing about our species migration. Their conservation doesn’t end when they finish nesting. This type of event happens fairly frequently in the keys and later in the week I’ll be sharing stories of other migration spectacles that the Florida Keys is rapidly becoming renowned for.

The Three Ticketeers

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The ticks just keep on coming in Leon County this fall and I’m not afraid to state that it is no more than we deserve. After all the effort that Rob, Elliot and myself have put in this year birding our asses off around the county, I feel we are reaping our just desserts. So far this fall we’ve each found Leon Co. lifers for each other and many other local birders and they’ve all been at Tram Rd Holding Ponds! It all started with the Willet (Elliot; lifer for us all), then the Caspian Tern (Elliot; lifer for Elliot, 5th for Andy), Western Sandpiper (Andy; lifer for Elliot and Rob, 6th for Andy), Baird’s Sandpiper (Andy; lifer for Andy & Elliot, 2nd for Rob), American Avocet (Rob; lifer for Andy & Elliot; 2nd for Rob), Sanderling (Elliot; lifer for Elliot & Rob, 2nd for Andy), and last but not least today’s Lark Sparrow (Andy; lifer for all three of us!).

Everyone else who birds in Leon County…take note. Elliot, Rob and I would like for one of y’all¬†to find us a lifer now please. Cheers!

Lark Sparrow - 4th or 5th Leon County record and the first twitchable one since 2002. Jim Cox found one last week at Tall Timbers but it didn't linger, which is typical of this species.
Lark Sparrow – 4th or 5th Leon County record and the first twitchable one since 2002. Jim Cox found one last week at Tall Timbers but it didn’t linger, which is typical of this species.
you can see this bird has retained a few juvenile breast streaks
you can see this bird has retained a few juvenile breast streaks