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

iPhone’s Rule

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With a little patience it’s amazing what you can achieve with an iPhone and a spotting scope.


Birding in Tallahassee – September 2014

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The local birding in our area has been great lately with lots of variety and a few uncommon/rare visitors thrown in for some cherry on top action. Here’s a bunch of pictures.

The American Avocet has been commuting between Tram Rd Holding Ponds and the Biltmore Avenue Cow Ponds. Most avocets don't stay for more than a day in our county, this one has been present for over a week now.
The American Avocet has been commuting between Tram Rd Holding Ponds and the Biltmore Avenue Cow Ponds. Most avocets don’t stay for more than a day in our county, this one has been present for over a week now.
I’ve taken a lot of pictures of the Tram Rd Baird’s Sandpipers but this is my favorite…love the scaly plumage
noisy buggers but hopefully they'll draw in a rare goose or two this fall/winter
noisy buggers but hopefully they’ll draw in a rare goose or two this fall/winter
This Least Flycatcher was a nice surprise at Optimist Park.
This Least Flycatcher was a nice surprise at Optimist Park.
my favorite warbler
my favorite warbler
It's been a decent fall for Western Sandpipers in Leon County. Seen here (left) with the Baird's Sandpiper
It’s been a decent fall for Western Sandpipers in Leon County. Seen here (left) with the Baird’s Sandpiper
Always a treat to see a Barred Owl
Always a treat to see a Barred Owl
ok, one more Baird's picture!
ok, one more Baird’s picture!

F’ it Friday

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Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival

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I’ll be there with bells on….will you? Head on down to paradise between September 23rd and 28th for a top quality experience with a great bunch of people and thousands of amazing migratory birds.


For more information on this exciting event PLEASE visit the festival website

Watch this amazing video that was taken this week at the hawkwatch. This is why the Florida Keys is one of the BEST places to go watch bird migration in the world!

Cow Pond Diary: Nighthawks…just a few!

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After dinner, Maisie and I headed to the cow ponds, I was inspired by Chris Hooker and Andy Kratter’s sightings from the previous 2 nights over their respective Florida nooks. It seems that one should head out in the evening and scrutinize the sky for nighthawks heading south for the winter. We weren’t to be disappointed. In fact Maisie got so used to seeing so many of them she got bored and inspected the local Loggerhead Shrikes larder, which was really cool! More about that in a separate post.

Nighthawks….hundreds of ‘em. 723 to be precise! Between 630pm and 723pm (sorry Mommy! We did homework, read, had dinner and shower all before 630pm).

The biggest flock of nighthawks totaled 290, yeah 290! They all gathered in a goatsucknado, a swirling vortex of neet neets! It was extraordinary. Anyway enough of my bollocks, see for yourself.

Sorry for the poor quality but taking iPhonescope video of a swirling mass of nighthawks was quite tricky!

It was easy to capture them with my Canon either. They were really high
It wasn’t at all easy to capture them with my Canon either. They were really high
a few of them came close and flew right over our heads
but one or two of them came close and flew right over our heads

Pretty cool eh?

So if you’re at a loose end one evening this month, head on outside about 90 minutes before sunset and look up.

Av a load of this beauty!

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Tram Road Holding Ponds is on fire dammit! 3 Leon County lifers there this fall and we’ve got plenty of migration to go. It all started with the Willet in late July, then the Baird’s Sandpiper in late August and then yesterday Rob Lengacher found the bird of the fall so far, at least in my opinion, an American Avocet.

#275 for the ole county list and somewhat of a nemesis as I’d missed 2 previous records a few years back.


What will be next? Ruddy Turnstone, Marbled Godwit, Ruff….the possibilities are endless. Remember, you won’t find these birds if you don’t get out and bird.



12 DBY: Shorebirds galore!

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As is normal I planned about 600 different scenarios for my big day in August and eventually went with the, “least amount of effort because I can’t be arsed” one! Palm Beach and Hendry County looked so inviting, 2 ABA lifers, a potential 15-22 year birds, shorebirds galore and potential for boosting my county lists to half decent levels. There was really only one setback with that scenario, the 14 hours of driving and missing a night of sleep. Yeah, fuck dat shit! I really like birding at god forsaken places that are good for shorebirds. If you can’t smell sewage, if there ain’t no tractors driving around, and there aren’t piles of yesterday’s technology rusting away lying around then bollocks it ain’t for me…LOL It was an easy decision to make the easier, 3 hour drive to the Okaloosa Holding Ponds to get my shorebird fix. It wasn’t a bad decision.

There were 7 Wilson's Phalaropes spinny doing on the western most pond
There were 7 Wilson’s Phalaropes spinny doing on the western most pond
Wilson's Phalarope (juvenile) with Short-billed Dowitcher (juvenile)
Wilson’s Phalarope (juvenile) with Short-billed Dowitcher (juvenile)


Other species present included Pectoral, Stilt, Western, Least, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper and both species of yellowlegs.

I headed east to check the dry beds out as they are often more productive for grasspipers. I came across a flock of about 20 Pectoral Sandpipers feeding in the grass. They were accompanied by three smaller peeps. 2 juvenile Baird’s and a Least. Nice!

a really crap picture of a juv Baird's
a really crap picture of a juv Baird’s

I enjoyed them all for a while hoping they would come closer for better pictures but they stayed about as far from me as they could. Who can blame ‘em! I grabbed my scope and walked about a minute further along the trail and saw a bird sitting on the gravel track.

Lark Sparrow
Lark Sparrow

I was starting to really enjoy my morning now and had no regrets about not driving south.

I made my way back to the wet ponds and checked through all the shorebirds again hoping something new had arrived but nothing had. I hadn’t really planned on where I was going to next so I sat in the comfort of my AC’d van and googled sod farms. I found a pretty large one near Panama City that I had a vague recollection of visiting once when I worked as an Environmental Specialist. It took me a little over an hour to get there and I drove around the many sod fields scanning each of them carefully for grasspipers. There were a few Killdeer.


But no Upland or Buff-breasted Sandpipers. This site is definitely worth checking in August though if you’re in the area. I designated it as an eBird hotspot – McCall Sod Farm.

From there I continued east and birded in Calhoun County where I found my bird of the day. A Horned Lark! Totally unexpected find at the Clarksville Sod Farm off route 20 west of Blountstown. This farm looked better for grasspipers than McCall but again all I found were Killdeers, shorebird wise. Bank and Cliff Swallow were nice too.

I slowly made my way back home via Jackson County and Lake Seminole. I was hoping there might be a shorebird or two on the ACI Prison Pond or a Black Tern on the lake but Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers were all I had.

Spotted Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper

I ended up adding 6 new year birds to my 12DBY total, which now stands on 272. My goal of 325 is probably out of reach now but who cares. Next month will be my last big day outside of the Panhandle; I’ll be in the Keys…huzzah!