Monday, 14 October 2019

Early October

Aside from the vireo I have had some excellent luck whilst working and birding. Continuing project work in Somerset had me in Bridgwater Bay for a few days at the beginning of the month. Rocking up in frankly disgusting weather Pete and I had a few hours on the Steart WWT watching waders with some nice diversity. The first visit revealed Spoonbill, Ruff, Greenshank and a Wood Sandpiper which dropped in late on during Monday evening. We couldn't winkle out the American Golden Plover from the back of the Marsh due to terrible viewing conditions. A couple Spotted Redshanks were pretty vocal as they dodged about.

Returning on Tuesday morning proved a double edged sword. At the back of the marsh was a lonely looking juvenile American Golden Plover which decided to avoid its cogeners for kicking about with Redshank and a couple of Curlew Sandpipers. Most of the previous days crowd were about although the Spoonbill was a billion miles away. A slight Tringa with yellow legs, monochrome ground colour and a thin, dark bill ticked all the boxes for Lesser Yellowlegs and when we thought we saw the correct tail pattern I jumped the gun and put the news out. The sun duly came out and it suddenly looked more robust, browner, with a pale bill base and orange legs. Eight minutes from misidentification to embarrassing climbdown. I felt shitty as I withdrew the report but folks were pretty decent about it. Thankfully it only took another twenty minutes for a degree of redemption as Pete and I marched along the dunes between Catsford and Wall Common only for a small thrushy thing with a barred tail to lift up from under Pete's feet. As I went for my bins and sturggled to process, Pete shouted 'Wryneck' and it duly gave superb views in a dell. Obviously I left my camera in the car so all I came away with were some phone-binned garbage but you can kinda see what it is. Ish. A handful of locals saw it subsequently and we saw it on our return through the dell but not half as well as initially and we left it. This was a find tick for both Pete and I which is always a good day. As we wandered back a Common Tern crossed Wall Common, a decent bird for the area and my 3rd tern species in Bridgwater Bay.

We also wandered along the banks of the River Parrett at low tide and I picked up a marsh tern doing the floppy diving thing they do. Bins only views were a little inconclusive given the distance but eventually we were happy with a 1st-winter Black Tern which was also seen by a few others. It rested on the mud with Black-headed Gulls and continued the next day. No sooner had Pete gone back to Newcastle than Paul took his place. A quiet but cool day was followed by a quick bit of snaking with no less than four Grass Snakes under a piece of tin including two neonates. We also checked the same bit of tin the following day and two new neonates were present (the first two were in shed so easy to ascertain the difference). Six snakes from one tin in two flips is pretty good for Britain in October I'd say!

We followed up this expedition with a trip for the Greylake Spotted Crake. A hideful of noisy folk meant it didn't show on our first attempt but a male Marsh Harrier, three Great White Egrets and a Cattle Egret were decent consolation. We returned the next day to see the crake swim across the channel in poor light. We also saw a Water Rail (we assume - another crake/rail seen badly in flight) cross the same area shortly after. 

Whilst working on the river the following day, I was on the phone to Paul when he promptly hung up on me. Only slightly offended I was keen to find out the cause of the interruption as we had been expecting decent birds due to strong westerlies. It turns out that a Grey Phalarope landed at Paul's feet in a puddle, no more than three feet from him. It sat there for 30 seconds before disappearing across Huntspill Sea Wall. About five minutes later I picked up a Grey Phal inflight coming from Paul's direction, crossing Fenning Island and heading back out into Bridgwater Bay. A fitting end to a great week in the south-west.

I managed to sneak a crafty seawatch in on Sunday 6th October but as I was late rising and the wind was South-east backing east in heavy rain I was no more than hopeful. Despite my tardiness I dropped into Flamborough and a full hide and a decent few hours was had. I picked up a Sooty Shearwater and got my eye in on a line of Little Gulls that were moving through. A lone Brent Goose plus a couple of groups of Eider, one of which containing an eclipse male Red-breasted Merganser moved past. A Tufted Duck was in amongst some Wigeon and small numbers of Common Scoter moved past. Single figure counts of Arctic and Great Skua along with a handful of Manx Shearwaters brightened up a soggy day and we were all grateful for the shelter of the seawatching observatory. Numbers of Kittiwakes were low and I kept an eye for juveniles, and a little burst of kitts and Little Gulls proved particularly productive as a juvenile Sabine's Gull appeared in my scope. I gave myself a few seconds to be sure before calling it. Thankfully all but one observer got on the bird (the Little Gull line was fiendish in difficult light conditions). This was the first Sabs I'd seen for a good few years when I found a couple offshore along the Yorkshire coast when self-employed. Last year Brett called one that six people got onto and one didnt. I cant complain too much, you miss the odd bird seawatching. Best to keep it at the ones you have seen before.

As morning turned to afternoon it was obvious that birds were arriving but I had the need to be elsewhere and wandered back up to the car park, pausing briefly at Bay Brambles. It was alive with wet migrants hiding in the scrub that adorns the cliffs. The first bird I saw was a Yellow-browed Warbler and two Goldcrests soon replaced that, never to be seen again. Some of the seawatchers who abandoned at a similar time to me came and checked what I'd seen. A Sparrowhawk went through and flushed three Song Thrush. No further sign of the Yellow-brow but then a Firecrest was called, a rarer bird in the autumn in Yorkshire for sure. There were a flurry of these sprites over the following week but initially I couldn't get onto this bird. Once I worked out the directions (its below the ridge in the brambles, in the darker brambles, above the hole) which made sense when you got there but less so prior to this in a sea of brambles. It popped up again and was a very bright male with an obvious orange crest. Delighted, I mistakenly thought it was my first for Flamborough but on checking my records I saw one last year along Old Fall hedge although weirdly I cant recall that at all. Dementia? From here it was all downhill as I headed for a week of being indoors only to be revived by an American wanderer. And now I'm back in the South-west and it seems to be raining American landbirds. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Worshipping with the REV

October has got off to an excellent start and this morning I made a pilgrimage to see the second Red-eyed Vireo for Yorkshire, a mere 29 years after the first. Yesterday I was wrapped up in family stuff as my wife was out with friends so it wasn't a goer and I feared I had missed my opportunity but in the pouring rain this morning the good news about the bird being present came out and I readied the troops. Much bribery and suitable charging of the kids tablets meant they were content to stay dry in the car whilst I went looking for this moss-green yank delight. 

My first REV was in August, on migration at Lucky Hammock in Florida and I considered twitching the Church Cove one in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago only for time/distance/cost to come into play and I decided to look for other stuff instead. Back to today and in driving rain I wandered along Vicar's Lane (there is a theme I'm sure but I just can't put it together). The crowd numbered almost 15 hardy souls in the stair-rods. Amongst them were John Sadler and Peter Williams who had already seen it and reassured me that it would reappear every quarter of an hour or so to drop into a berry-laden ornamental bush by the entrance to the car park by the gas station. They drifted away and time ticked by, almost 20 minutes of getting soggy and then birds started to move through the trees. First a Blackcap, then a Blackbird before a Song Thrush and then finally another Sylvia sized bird. This however was no Garden Warbler but a North American beauty. It dropped hesitantly through the canopy giving great views before alighting on the final branch above the ornamental bush. It was maybe ten or fifteen seconds but easily long enough to get some photos off in difficult conditions. It then fed in the bush for a couple of minutes before lifting off and disappearing into the willows. At this point, very satisified with what I had seen I congratulated Steve Lawton and Andy Malley who were also amongst the small congregation before heading back to the girls, happy to tell them their sacrifice was worth it. 

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Wake me up when September ends

Last month featured minimal actual birding but some damn fine birds and a few snakes. It started with a week in Somerset which featured a diversion to Kynance Cove on the Lizard for a brief look at the Brown Booby which put in a rather brief appearance as it headed to roost. I also saw a good number of Curlew Sandpipers and a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls around Stert Point. A post work sally into Dorset saw me come face to face with my first ever Smooth Snake on a small site (handled under licence).

Izzy at MigFest
Isabelle joined me for the morning at Migfest where we represented the Yorkshire Naturalists Union. We saw loads of great people including Jonny 'Lord of Dovestep' Rankin just as he finished his marathon section of a monster biathlon. We recruited a couple of members and I also managed to see my first White-rumped Sandpiper (lazy twitcher) as it continued its residency at Kilnsea Wetlands. On the Sunday I headed out for a seawatch at Flamborough which was probably the only structured birding I did and I saw a juvenile Long-tailed Skua, a handful of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters (I managed to miss a brace of Balearics) plus a returning Pale-bellied Brent Goose.

A second trip to Somerset was enlived by Yorkshire's first Little Crake since 1946 at Blacktoft Sands which showed exceptionally for the assembled masses before undertaking an overnight flit and leaving a dirty great hole in many twitchers lists. Not mine though and also added the same day was a county tick in the form of the Long-billed Dowitcher which had been at Fairburn Ings for a little while. Like the White-rumped Sandpiper, this was a bird I CBA to go too far for. Three Yorkshire Ticks and three lifers in one month isnt too bad.

Little Crake. Showing between the reeds again!
A glorious mid-September day with temperatures in the 20s led to another snake trip, this time to a larger site and we manged to see an array of sizes and shapes of Smooth Snakes with seven gracing us with their presence by the end of the walk. I can't go into much detail due to sensitivity over the site but I improved my handling skills and also saw my first Wasp Spider which was very cool. A couple of probable Sand Lizards evaded a decent look but we did see plenty of Zoots.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Florida 2019 Trip List

Gulf Fritillary
Here is a complete list of the birds / herps / mammals and what dragons and butterflies I identified from our August sojorn to the Sunshine State. Lifers in bold, ABA ticks in italics/bold.

Halloween Pennant

1) Muscovy Duck - One within hotel grounds with Mottled Ducks, Kissimmee, 17/08/2019;
2) Mottled Duck - many, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
3) Wild Turkey - several en route to Magic Kingdom along the Osceola Parkway, 02/08/2019;
4) Feral Pigeon - regularly in urban areas;
5) White-crowned Pigeon - in hotel grounds in Key Largo and in Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
6) Collared Dove - widespread, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
7) Mourning Dove - widespread, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
8) Common Ground Dove - seven, Lucky Hammock also one Dagny Johnson SP, 16/08/2019;
9) Mangrove Cuckoo - two, Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019;
10) Common Nighthawk - many, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
11) Ruby-throated Hummingbird - one, Animal Kingdom, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
12) Limpkin - one, foraging with Scarlet Ibis, Epcot, Kissimmee, 03/08/2019;
13) Sandhill Crane - several en route to Typhoon Lagoon along Highway, Kissimmee, 06/08/2019;
14) Black-necked Stilt - three, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
15) Black-bellied Plover - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
16) Wilson's Plover - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
17) Semipalmated Plover - several, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
18) Ruddy Turnstone - two, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
19) Sanderling - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
20) Spotted Sandpiper - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, also Key West, 10/08/2019;
21) Solitary Sandpiper - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
22) Willet - many, Flamingo, Everglades NP, also Key West, 10/08/2019;
23) Lesser Yellowlegs - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
24) Laughing Gull - widespread in coastal areas, first Key Largo, 08/08/2019;
25) Least Tern - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
26) Cabot's Tern - two, Key West, 15/08/2019;
27) Black Skimmer - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
28) Magnificent Frigatebird - common in Key Largo with passage, first 09/08/2019;
29) Anhinga - widespread, first Magic Kingdom, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
30) Double-crested Cormorant - small numbers near wetlands, first, Epcot, 03/08/2019;
31) American White Pelican - 12 in flight, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/09/2019;
32) Brown Pelican - widespread in Florida Keys, first Islamorada, 14/08/2019;
33) Great Blue Heron - widespread in small numbers, first, Fort Lauderdale, 08/08/2019
           - Great White Heron - small numbers seen on Upper Keys, first, Key Largo, 11/08/2019;
34) Snowy Egret - seen widely in Everglades NP, first, Flamingo, 10/08/2019;
35) Little Blue Heron - small numbers seen in Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
36) Tricoloured Heron - small numbers seen in Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
37) Reddish Egret - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 11/08/2019;
38) Cattle Egret - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
39) Green Heron - widespread in Everglades NP, first Anhinga Trail, 10/08/2019;
40) White Ibis - ubiquitous, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
41) American Black Vulture - common, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
42) Turkey Vulture - common, first Magic Kingdom, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
43) Osprey - widespread, common in Southern Florida, first Epcot, 03/08/2019;
44) Swallow-tailed Kite - one, Magic Kingdom, also several in Southern Florida, first 02/08/2019;
45) Cooper's Hawk - two, Key Largo, first 12/08/2019;
46) Red-shouldered Hawk - common in Southern Florida, first near Homestead, 08/08/2019;
47) Short-tailed Hawk - two, Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
48) Red-tailed Hawk - two, first Epcot, Kissimmee, 03/08/2019;
49) Great Horned Owl - one, Pinelands, Everglades NP, 11/08/2019;
50) Barred Owl - one, Pa-hay-okee Overlook, Everglades NP, 11/08/2019;
51) Red-bellied Woodpecker - widespread, first Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019;
52) Downy Woodpecker - one, Long Pine Key, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
53) Pileated Woodpecker - several, Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
54) Northern Flicker - two, Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019;
55) American Kestrel - one, on wires, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
56) Great Crested Flycatcher - three, first Long Pine Key, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
57) Gray Kingbird - common on Key Largo, first 11/08/2019;
58) Eastern Kingbird - one, Long Pine Key, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
59) White-eyed Vireo - several, Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019;
60) Red-eyed Vireo - one, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
61) Loggerhead Shrike - several, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
62) American Crow - widespread, first Magic Kingdom, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
63) Fish Crow - widespread but less common, first Magic Kingdom, Kissimmee 02/08/2019;
64) Tufted Titmouse - several at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 06/08/2019;
65) Purple Martin - common migrant, first Long Pine Key, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
66) Barn Swallow - extremely common migrant, first Kissimmee, 03/08/2019;
67) Cliff Swallow - common migrant, first Long Pine Key, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
68) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - common, first Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019;
69) Carolina Wren - two, Anhinga Trail, 13/08/2019;
70) Starling - common in Southern Florida, first Miami, 08/08/2019;
71) Common Myna - common in Homestead, first 08/08/2019;
72) Northern Mockingbird - common, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, 02/08/2019;
73) Eastern Bluebird - three together, Animal Kingdom Lodge 04/08/2019;
74) House Sparrow - common in Kissimmee, first Magic Kingdom, 02/08/2019;
75) Eastern Towhee - one, Long Pine Key, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
76) Red-winged Blackird - common in Everglades, first Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
77) Common Grackle - common, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
78) Boat-tailed Grackle - locally common, first Magic Kingdom, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
79) Ovenbird - two, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
80) Black-and-white Warbler - several, first, Key Largo, 14/08/2019;
81) American Redstart - several, first Key Largo, 14/08/2019;
82) Prothonotary Warbler - one, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
83) Prairie Warbler - many in Southern Florida, first Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019;
84) Yellow-throated Warbler - one, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019; and
85) Northern Cardinal - locally common, first Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019.

Eastern Cottontail
1) West Indian Manatee - 3+ Flamingo, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
2) Virginia Opossum - one, Key Largo, 10/08/2019;
3) Eastern Cottontail - three, Animal Kingdom Lodge, 02/08/2019; and
4) Eastern Gray Squirrel - several, Animal Kingdom Lodge, 02/08/2019.

1) American Alligator - several, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
2) American Crocodile - one, Flamingo, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
3) Florida Softshell - locally common, first Epcot, Kissimmee, 03/08/2019;
4) Florida Red-bellied Cooter - several, Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
5) Green Anole - four, Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
6) Brown Anole - common, first Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 01/08/2019;
7) Northern Curly-tailed Lizard - common in Keys, first Key Largo, 08/08/2019;
8) Green Iguana - common in Keys, first Key Largo, 08/08/2019;
9) Red-headed Agama - several, John Pennekamp NP, 14/08/2019;
10) Tropical House Gecko - one, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
11) Burmese Python - one, Anhinga trail road, Everglades NP, 13/08/2019;
12) Florida Cottonmouth - three, Everglades NP, 13/08/2019;
13) Banded Watersnake - one, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019; and
14) Southern Ring-necked Snake - one, Long Pine Key, 13/08/2019 plus one dead at AKL.

Also seen were several roadkill Black-and-white Tegu, one Everglades Racer, one Corn Snake, two Banded Watersnakes and two Yellow Ratsnakes.

1) Southern Toad - common Everglades NP, 13/08/2019;
2) Cane Toad - common South Florida, 13/08/2019; and
3) Southern Leopard Frog - several, Everglades NP, 13/08/2019.

Also heard Pig Frog.

Southern Toad
1) Clouded Sulphur - common, first Magic Kingdom, Kissimmee, 02/08/2019;
2) Zebra Longwing - several, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
3) White Peacock - several, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
4) Queen  - one, Lucky Hammock, 16/08/2019;
5) Monarch - widespread and common;
6) Gulf Fritillary  - widespread;
7) Julia - common in the Keys and Everglades;
8) Black Swallowtail - common;
9) Tiger Fritillary - several, widespread;
10) Long-tailed Skipper - two, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kissimmee, 05/08/2019; and
11) Atala - several, Dagny Johnson SP, 09/08/2019.

Queen Butterfly

Eastern Amberwing

Four-spotted Pennant
1) Four-spotted Pennant - Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 16/08/2019;
2) Halloween Pennant - Anhinga Trail, Everglades NP, 10/08/2019;
3) Green Darner - common;
4) Eastern Amberwing - several, Anhinga Trail, 13/08/2019; and
5) Red Saddlebags - common.

Many unidentified Dragons and Butterflies.

Zebra Longwing

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Florida Birding Chronicles, The Other Part

A great bird
It's warm but not the sort of warm that makes you want to drink gallons of water and then dump the rest on your head and because of that, in my head its cool. Florida Keys cool is still 27c and 70% humidity but a lack of sun means that I'm birding in comfort. Seeps escape the mangroves from birds unseen. I had been seeking a glimpse of the bird (birds?) that were hiding in there for ten minutes without success. In exasperation I thought of pishing and remembered all the fanciful tails of birds falling out of the trees to see you. Worth a try perhaps? With zero expectations I pish away, quietly at first and then gradually with more gusto. And do you know what? Along with looking a prat in the hotel car park, I now sounded like a prat too. Despite this a smoky, grey-blue bird dropped out of the canopy and started flicking its tail on a twig like an anorexic fantail. Then two and finally three Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are dancing for my merriment, intoxicated by my ridiculous tune.
A flash of yellow suggests that there may be more than just Gnatcatchers in there and a bit of patience means a female American Redstart joins the throng, just behind the smoky blue blurs which continued to evade my ridiculously slow super-zoom. My eye is drawn to another small bird walking down a trunk, nuthatch style but in a rather fetching pied number. Being America this is of course a Black-and-white Warbler. Still I pish, now louder and with a nonchalance after this overwhelming success. The Redstart has morphed into an adult male and this hangs around a moment too long and I steal a rather poor record shot. I suddenly see half a dozen White-capped Pigeons explode from a treetop and lose my focus and the insectivores drift away. The pigeons, a Keys speciality have proved elusive to this point and I reckon the odds are that one or two are still in the roost. I was proved right a few minutes later when I find a bird hiding in plain sight and evidently convinced I can't see it. That too has a poor digital rendition captured.

This wasn't the first bit of birding I did in Southern Florida or the best bit but it was the moment when the scales fell from my eyes and I realised just how good it could be. I saw a couple of male American Redstarts during our ten days in the south of the state but this was my first and most intimate view. I subsequently also realised I had already seen a couple of Gnatcatchers, piecemeal, in the canopy at the Dagny Johnson State Park. At the time my viscera was being liberated from my possession by hordes of exceedingly persistent mosquitoes as the dawn sun rose but despite my injured pride, itchy skin and resemblance to Joseph Merrick I wasn't fretting about the blue blurs in the half light. I had seen two Mangrove Cuckoos. Mangrove Cuckoo, another Keys speciality, is also a bit of an enigma resembling a slightly dowdy Yellow-billed Cuckoo but with a reputation for being stubbornly difficult to see. Obviously the first bird I saw aside from a Nighthawk which may or may not have been Common (I erroneously thought Antillean Nighthawks only occurred further to the west), was a Mangrove Cuckoo, uncalling, in the hardwood hammock. A second, calling bird was seen later whilst exiting at high speed and I could not have been less bothered as my claret tax limit had been exceeded. My search for Black-whiskered Vireos had led me to a damper, closed canopy part of the forest, perhaps 20 minutes after first light and whilst watching a couple of White-eyed Vireos I took my eye of the ball until it was too late. I did however learn that a liberal coating of deet under my sacrificial T-shirt helped discourage the mozzies for long enough to enjoy the bird you are looking at. Once back at the car, two Northern Flickers bounded through the treetops, my only ones of the trip.

Aware that Florida and thus continental North American petered out into a series of small islands before turning into the Caribbean Sea and the Greater Antilles, I had a vague idea that visible migration may have been a thing. I was also aware that a hawk watch station was present at Big Pine Key, about halfway along the chain. However, it was mid-August and I didnt hold much hope of large movements of birds, perhaps the odd raptor and a few swallows. My expectations were blown away. Laid on my sun-lounger with a cold craft beer on the go I watched in awe as a constant stream of hirundines passed overhead. This was an everpresent during my time in South Florida with Barn Swallows leaving by the droves, 80-100 birds per minute, constantly. There were other species in there but it took a few days to realise what the makeup was with perhaps 20% Cliff Swallows and 10% Purple Martins, both of which were lifers. I kept an eye out for Cave Swallows and other species but managed to detect none. The poolside setting of my watch was straight out of Cocktail minus Tom Cruise. Despite the lack of movie star sparkle it became evident by late morning that a slight drop in the rate of hirundines passing was to be compensated by raptors and Magnificent Frigatebirds. I followed a kettle of Black Vultures from the mainland(ish) to Key Largo and then turn west. Soon after a Turkey Vulture passed overhead with a Frigatebird and they kettled together, continuing along the Key. Ospreys passed high above and within 90 minutes or so I had seen 20+ of all four species, all heading for the out door at Key West, some 100 miles along the archipelago.

Common Ground Dove
The very best bit of birding I did was on my final daytime visit to the glades. It was outside that National Park, a mile or so east of the entrance, at Lucky Key. I understand the name now. Arriving just as the sun was about to rise I was concerned about how much blood I was going to lose in the gloaming. I needn't have worried as the liberal application of Deet meant that I birded largely unmolested (infact the only time I was heavily bitten in the park was when following the advice of a ranger who said the mosquitoes were largely absent from a trail that ran through a suspiciously damp bit of woodland). I arrived to a trio of Common Ground Doves, my first of the trip and also my first in 12 years since I visited Barbados. Northern Mockingbirds and Northern Cardinals abounded and a Loggerhead Shrike was doing what Shrikes do, perched upon a telegraph wire. The morning flight of Red-winged Blackbirds came out of roost in their hundreds if not thousands and spread over the glades along with an almost infinite number of swallows and martins.

Lucky Hammock is pretty small. Think Old Fall Plantation at Flamborough and you wouldn't be far off. All you can do is walk round it as the vegetation is too thick to penetrate and to be honest I'm not sure you would want to with all manner of biting and stinging things likely hidden in its depths. It is however dense with several layers of canopy and oh, so lush. It is an island in the agriculture east of the park and harbours migrants. Lots of migrants. I started pishing and obviously the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers emerge, gung-ho. A warbler is amongst the Gnatcatchers, a Prairie Warbler. It took a few days to realise these guys were the default thing with yellow on and like the Gnatcatchers the penny had dropped prior to this that the yellow flashes I saw at Dagny Johnson SP were these guys. Less expected was another warbler with a spike-like, slightly decurved bill. It was pied, save for a yellow-throat which means that it must be a Yellow-throated Warbler. A Black-and-white Warbler failed to pose for shots and my second Great Crested Flycatcher of the trip scoots through the treetops.
Loggerhead Shrike

A couple of the Red-winged Blackbirds
Suddenly it was all happening, my heart was hammering as it started to rain lifers, Red-throated Vireo, followed but not one but two Ovenbirds in the treetops before dropping, pipit-like into the crop nearby. A Queen Butterfly, a close relative of the Monarch was floating past as a golden apparition appeared above me. Possibly my most wanted warbler of them all, a Prothonatary Warbler in all its citrine loveliness was above me, one of a vanguard of migrants that were reported across the state that day. My pishing began to lose its effect as the birds bored and moved off to forage. This however was hardly a day done. A Great Egret and the first Turkey Vulture of the day suggested other birds were starting to leave their roosts and I headed west. I stopped short of the park entrance as I watched a trio of Swallow-tailed Kites sallying over fields, weightless, before edging, slowly north out of view. These are truly magnificent raptors and this is my excuse for failing to pap them effectively as I was enraptured by them dancing in the breeze. So enraptured, I failed to notice an Alligator that was below me in the canal. Its explosion across the water due to my looming presence on the bridge was thankfully no more than a shock before it sunk into the weeds.

Not a good photo of a Swallow-tailed Kite
You might have guessed by now that this post is neither comprehensive nor chronological and I will post a checklist for the whole trip shortly. This however is a brief bit of intact chronology as I moved along to the Anhinga Trail. Few herps were doing which is probably for the best from a birding point of view. The Anhinga trail is known for excellent views of Alligators and waterbirds but this morning an obscured gator under the boardwalk was unremarkable, however there were birds present as a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers shouted like delinquents at each other and stayed remarkably well hidden until they broke cover to fly. A Green Heron squawked as it left its hiding place in the reeds only to be followed by a second bird. A buteo swirled up from its overnight resting place. I couldn't immediately place it as it wasn't an obvious Red-tailed or Red-shouldered Hawk. Upon closer inspection it was a light morph Short-tailed Hawk which aren't as short-tailed as the name suggests. As it rose I noticed clouds of Black Vultures overhead, hundreds of birds evacuating to the stratosphere, joined by a handful of Turkey Vultures the odd Osprey and a dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk. The kaleidoscopic form rose higher until it was barely visible and then birds peeled off in all directions to forage over the river of grass.
Lots of Black Vultures
Dark morph Short-tailed Hawk
The penultimate bit of birding I am going to recount comes from several visits to the same place, Flamingo. At the end of the Everglades NP road is Flamingo. A small quay either side of a lock with one direction heading out into the lagoons and mangroves and the other heading along a 'freshwater' canal. Away from here is the Campground although why you would camp there god only knows as mosquitoes gather in billowing clouds over the grass. Here however is some of the best birding in the park. Ospreys breed at high densities, raptors circle and shorebirds forage. The swamps held foraging parties of Snowy Egrets with Tricolored and Little Blue Herons hidden in their midst whilst my only Reddish Egret of the trip was on the shoreline along with my lifer Least Tern and Black Skimmer. Waders were also thick on the ground with Black-bellied, Semipalmated and a lifer Wilson's Plover mixed in with flocks of Willets. Fresh water pools from the afternoon deluges held Black-necked Stilts, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs. Overhead amongst the vultures a squadron of American White Pelicans flew out to sea. I imagine there were other things but here I also got distracted by newly fledged Turkey Vultures sitting en masse atop the toilet block I was using as a screen and equally fresh Red-shouldered Hawks sat on posts around the grounds. I'm sure I have forgotten something but each time I reached Flamingo it was flaming hot and the humidity was nearing 100%. Usually I was nursing some freshly purchased ice cream or soft drink, attempting to replace the fluids or top up the sugars from my exertions. And of course none of this even touches on the Manatees or the Crocodile.

Solitary Sandpiper

Turkey Vulture lounging on the loo

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk
My final little tale is of Pay-hay-okee watchtower. My first visit saw distant Red-tailed Hawks and rather closer Red-bellied Woodpeckers. An American Redstart was scant compensation for a near miss. Two non-birders came and grabbed me and tried to show me but it was gone. Slipped into the flooded hammock, unseen so I went back to watching Florida Gars and invasive Plec catfish whilst listening to the odd tunes of Pig Frogs. I returned the following day with the kids and a funny feeling that provided nobody spotted it before me that day I may get lucky and show the kids. My wife and Isabelle raced to the tower whilst I showed Abby a turtle and some fish. I didn't climb the tower but paused on the stairs to look below it. A Barred Owl stared back and this chubby Strix duly sat, largely oblivious and certainly unbothered to the stream of admirers. Once my family had their fill of the large owl, eight-foot below the tower, my daughter took great delight in showing other tourists but despite this the owl sat, unflustered. It really was awesome. Eventually we left it in peace. 

Barred Owl. The first view.


Eastern Kingbird
Great Egret
There are a few other anecdotes and plenty of other birds but really this is the essence of the trip and I loved it. Florida, I will return.

Brown Pelican

Red-shouldered Hawk
Little Blue Heron

Monday, 9 September 2019

Florida Birding Chronicles, The Disney Part

Black Vulture
The trip to Florida wasn't entirely reptile focused (it was mostly Disney focused in reality!) but I also did loads of birding. Up in Orlando we were staying at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and Great Egrets were all over the place. We also had Mourning Dove and Collared Dove breeding in the grounds along with a stack of Common Grackles. Each evening as I enjoyed a beer on the balcony watching the Zebras and Giraffes potter about Common Nighthawks were seen hawking over the hotel. I got some terrible photos which was great! White Ibis were everywhere on site, acting as a multi-handed (or billed) clean up gang. In the damper areas including the pool and the Flamingo enclosure were small groups of Mottled Ducks. A handful of Barn Swallows scooted overhead most days and there were occasional sightings of Northern Mockingbird and Eastern Bluebird with family parties of both kicking about. Each morning round the hotel you would get loafing Black Vultures waiting for the thermals to build so they could search the area for dead stuff.
Blurry Nighthawk
 In the parks there were plenty of great birds to see. Our first day at Magic Kingdom started with Fish Crows making their odd call, with a few American Crows chucked in. By the end of the holiday I still couldn't tell the difference without call. Parties of Boat-tailed Grackles bothered the queues into the parks, scavenging what they could. An unidentified warbler overhead had yellow on it. Without bins I was struggling - thankfully I kept them in the backpack most of the time. Overhead at Magic Kingdom were a plethora of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures and my first Swallow-tailed Kite. The latter species was a lifer I was very much looking forward to but the distant views of it circling several hundred feet up with the vultures were disappointing. Hopefully there would be more to come? Both Green Heron and Tricolored Heron messed around near the water areas of the park along with the ubiquitous White Ibis. Obviously there were House Sparrows. We moved onto Animal Kingdom park late in the day for a change of scenery and were greeted in the Avatar themed land with our only Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the trip which popped up briefly looking all the world like a CGI knock-up.

One of several million White Ibis seen at Disney
Across the rest of the parks it was a similar story generally but Epcot had a plethora of Anhinga and Double-crested Cormorants and we eventually found the Ospreys. A Red-tailed Hawk was seen sat up in the rafters of the buildings at Epcot, hiding out of the sun. Amongst the scavenging Ibis was our only Limpkin of the trip. A probably Wood Stork thermalling was too far away to be sure and I let that go. On our way in we saw a band of Turkeys foraging on the side of the Osceola Parkway with Sandhill Cranes doing the same the following day en route to Blizzard Beach. Our first Starlings were seen somewhere during this period but quite where I have no idea. By the end of the time at Disney I was getting itchy feet to do some proper birding and I wasn't to be disappointed.

Turkey Vulture

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Everybody's goin' herping, herping USA part 2

Banded Water Snake 
Now the juicy stuff! I got out into the Everglades National Park a number of times both day and night and there will be another post about the birds but two nights and three days in the park produced many highlights including those featured below.

Apologies for the glut of swearing early on. It was an extremely visceral and exciting experience finding a snake that big! In an effort for chronology I will start at the beginning.

Prior to heading to the Everglades the only native reptiles I had seen were a couple of Florida Softshell turtles. I had been in the Keys for a day before I sought to explore. I headed straight for the Anhinga Trail within the park, a couple of miles west from the gate. Immediately on arrival there were Brown Anoles everywhere along with giant Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers. Out on the pool were two American Alligators. I was the first person on the trail and was alone with these two giants. A third gator bellowed out in the sawgrass beyond the pool unseen. The smaller animal hauled out by the path providing a nervous obstacle to navigate. I breathed in and moved past it on the other side of the path.

The first gator hauled out. 
Further Softshells were messing about in the water and I saw my first Red-bellied Cooter messing about in the water chowing down on Water Lilies. A Green Anole was seen on the rail of the boardwalk, the first of three I saw in a similar location (the final one was a brown morph). No further Alligators were seen on my first trip although I had a favoured loafing spot pointed out underneath the board walk which would later prove productive.

Green Anole flashing a bit of dewlap.
A trip down to Flamingo provided plenty of birds but no reptiles. The star was a brief Manatee which was seen in very turbid water round the jetties. I failed to find any Crocs in this area.

I returned to the park road in the evening determined to try and add some snakes. A number of Southern Toads and dreaded Cane Toads were seen on the road in plus two freshly killed Yellow Rat Snakes. I cruised at 20mph to prevent myself from squashing the targets (and it was the lowest speed the cruise control dropped to).

I turned back towards the Anhinga trail and about half a mile along there was a speed bump on my lane. No, it was moving. It was an enormous snake. My first live snake of the trip and it was a monster, the invasive Burmese Python. It ran from the centre of the road to the margin, 2.5-3 metres in length. Not the fattest of specimens and not enormous but to me outrageous. Mixed feelings about the status of these reptiles contested and lost to the awesome animal I watched slowly making its way into the verge. My sweary bit of video isnt good but it shows the moment for posterity. I had been told not to mess with these guys if they are over 2.5m due to the risk of being overpowered (and the nasty bite they possess).

Burmese Python
I moved onto Long Pine Key after passing a dead Banded Water Snake and flat Cottonmouth. I was 4-1 down, dead snakes to live ones but thankfully I didnt see any further dead ones that night. I did however manage to see a Southern Ring-necked Snake, a small fossorial species amongst the pine needles and toads in the hammock.. This species is a mildly venomous rear fanged colubrid which is pretty tiny. It isnt really able to bite so poses no risk to humans but I failed to make the grab instead contenting myself with some awful video as it thrashed across the road.

After this I cruised towards Pinelands and was greeted by a beautiful juvenile Florida Cottonmouth on the road. A real diddly job this guy was loving the warmth from the blacktop. I managed some terrible photo before a fake strike had me retreating. A Great Horned Owl at the turn was awesome in the headlights before sallying off into the mosquito filled darkness. The return failed to unearth more snakes but I did find a Southern Leopard Frog amongst numerous Cane and Southern Toads.

Florida Cottonmouth juvenile. Ive managed to cut the yellow tail off.

Southern Leopard Frog
A return visit during the day revealed similar stuff but with the family in tow it was fun to show them the gators and my wife found her own one out in the Sawgrass. We had further views of Turtles and Manatees to go along with the gators but failed again with the Crocs. Izzy was determined to come along for a herping trip after seeing the area and my successes.

Angela's Alligator
My final diurnal visit was again similar but I found a loafing Alligator in the canal just outside the park whilst looking at Swallow-tailed Kites. I also had some great views of Gar and weirdly a Plec catfish more familiar in fish tanks. On the Anhinga trail a nest of Florida Softshells suddenly erupted beside the path and I managed to get 7 of them into the water before they were trodden on or molested. One was picked up and bothered by a family but I think they all made it into the water which isnt bad. An amazing site and one that brings home the odds for the small hatchlings. At Flamingo the magic happened. Two Manatees were drinking from an outflow giving my best views of the holiday when they shifted aside. A French-Canadian family started shouting 'Alligator' but I had a feeling it would be a croc. I quickly dodged round and saw a fabulous, if slightly small American Crocodile' with its head in the outflow briefly. The Manatees were hardly bothered and slowly drifted away whilst the toothy predator drank before sinking into the muddy waters not to be seen again. On leaving Flamingo a very freshly dead Everglades Racer was on the road. A very sad sight for a big, active snake.

American Crocodile


Hatchling Florida Softshell
Returning back to base I picked Isabelle up after a flying feed and we headed back to the park with stocks of coffee and sweets and bedding for her to nod off. She didnt though! We started off with a couple of Southern Toads before we were tailed by some herpers doing a much greater speed. More fool them as they overtook us near the ranger station. We turned and they carried onto a dirt road. We got 100 yards further along and a Banded Water Snake came out onto the road. This was a big fat Nerodia and I didnt want to mess with it but Izzy was right in there having a look as it left the road. The other herpers returned just as the snake left the tarmac and didnt stop. More fool them. Both Izzy and I were buzzing after seeing this. It was really impressive and great to see a live one after the RTA victim.

Florida Banded Watersnake
It wasnt long before we found another snake, this time a Cottonmouth. Izzy had to be restrained from getting too close to the highly venomous pit viper. We got excellent views as we encouraged it to leave the road as cars whizzed past. It was bigger than the previous nights individual with little yellow in the tail.
Retreating Cottonmouth
A dead Corn Snake was a blow as it again was pristine and very fresh. We didnt do well with rat snakes on this trip sadly. A second Cottonmouth of the night was on tarmac near Long Pine Key and we got further excellent views with Isabelle being a bit more circumspect this time. It had lost its tail tip but was feisty enough.

We called it a night as both of us tired and I kept confusing pine needles for herps. An excellent way to round off a great introduction to herping in North America and I definitely have a sidekick for future missions.

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive