Monday, 30 December 2019

Autumn in the Costa Blanca



This trip report has been slow coming to realise itself out of my tiny, addled mind and onto the virtual paper here. In late October I spent a rather warm week in Southern Alicante with my family and as usual I was indulged to get out and about including day trips to see my friend Jess up in Albacete and with the family to Sierra Espuna, Murcia. We arrived from single digit temperatures of Leeds-Bradford to the relative comfort of 22c and by the time we came left it was touching 30c.

Sierra Espuna
My first morning in Spain always starts with a pre-breakfast wander to reacquaint myself with the local birds. I was hoping for a bit of passage and there were some bits and pieces. I started at the cemetery in the Parc Natural de la Mata y Torrevieja. The park is located a few metres from the door but it is massive. I planned on looking for migrants in the plantations but the proliferation of mosquitoes still present meant I changed plans and headed round the edge of the salt pan looking for waders.

Juvenile Flamingo
I manged to cheer up the local Finnish birder when I found him a Kingfisher but for me it was the hundreds of Black-necked Grebes and the Flamingos which were appealing. Sadly the closest of the latter were all juveniles but in pleasant light it was still great to see up close. The usual suspects were about with Iberian Green Woodpecker, Thekla Lark and Zitting Cisticola. A Marsh Harrier cruised by, checking us out and the largest flock of Stone Curlew I have seen were sat on a spit with a minimum of 38 present. A Mistle Thrush in the cemetery was a good local bird although they breed close by. A single Iberian Grey Shrike was perched up surveying for potential food and the highlight was four Shoveler which dropped in. It was soon time for coffee although not until I had acquired the first of many puncture wounds from the mozzies.

I went looking for herps with Izzy late morning and we found our only snake of the trip, hiding under the step that led into the reserve. It looked like a Smooth snake but had a chequered pattern on the belly which as far as I knew made it a Southern smooth snake. I was however mistaken, it was the mildly venomous, rear-fanged impressionist the Iberian False Smooth Snake. Naturally I held it and got Izzy to feel it - it showed no inclination to bite and there are no records of envenonmation. It had a couple of fake strikes when I annoyed it a bit but we had to move it out from under its hiding place so we didn't crush it.



That afternoon we had a ramble round El Clot de Galvany, a small nature reserve 15 miles to the north which has some pleasant bars nearby. This is a small oasis and has a mosaic of habitats. With the plentiful water I was hoping for crakes but all I got on that score were Coots and Moorhens. More interesting were the Crag Martins scuddings about and an Edward's Psammodromus on rocks. I also had my only Red-rumped Swallow of the trip and a few Crested Larks.

Water Pipit - El Rincon
On the 28th I was meeting Jess in Albacete in order to get out on to the steppes and catch up with a few more localised birds. Jess works in a school on the outskirts of the city so I had to wait until they kicked out. As it is about 100 miles up there from where I was staying I headed to El Rincon which is the visitor centre for El Hondo which is open daily (it doesnt give the full experience but allows a dabble). Water levels were incredibly low but there were some great birds. A circling Booted Eagle was bettered by a male Hen Harrier messing about over fields. Bluethroats were present throughout. The reintroduction scheme Crested Coots remained loyal to their pool with a few Purple Swamphens. My only Squacco Heron of the trip was sat on the marsh in front of me but as it was a first winter bird it wasnt very obvious (and I am blind / useless). I flushed it and thus only really saw it in flight. Idiot. A number of meadow pipits were foraging around the margins of the marsh and amongst them was a lovely Water Pipit which was only my second in Spain. The margins shimmered with Plain Tigers which are also known as African Monarchs and are in the same genus as the more famous Monarch Butterfly. Numbers were higher than I can ever remember.

Plain Tiger
In addition to the birds and butterflies I spied a slightly raggedy male Vagrant Emperor. Despite the first records of this nomadic species from Yorkshire this year I had yet to catch up with one anywhere. A few squadrons of Glossy Ibis crossed the marsh as did a small group of Spoonbill which was the first ones I have seen at El Hondo (I have seen them distantly at Santa Pola salinas before). Pretty soon my stomach told me it was time to head onwards and upwards from sea level to about 1000m asl on the plains of Castilla La Mancha.

Male Vagrant Emperor
Once I had acquired Jess we headed for Petrola where we saw some distant flamingoes and not much else although a Iberian Grey Shrike watched us from above. We didnt have much success at a number of pools with Red-crested Pochard and the odd Marsh Harrier the highlights. It was however really good to catch up with Jess. We know each other through ringing at Tophill Low with Graham Scott on his CES site. Jess moved to Spain several years ago as a fluent Spanish speaker and has been teaching in Albacete ever since. We had a rather epic day in Norfolk several years ago featuring a Lesser White-fronted Goose, a Western Sandpiper and a Coues' Arctic Redpoll with support from Shore Larks, Taiga Bean Geese and a rather lovely Chinese Water Deer.

One of many chilly and duck filled lagoons of Castilla La Mancha. And Jess
We did eventually manage to find a few troops of Great Bustard to the west of Bonete. Once East of Bonete however things picked up. Whilst looking for Rock Sparrows at Bonete Station a rather lovely male Black Redstart popped up. A few kestrels dotted about and we chewed over the possibility of Lesser which they werent but at this point I noticed some Great Bustards on the far side of the fields. The fields were enormous with 'boundaries' nearly a kilometre away. Despite this the birds gave really nice views and some meandered closer, halving the distance. A smaller brown thing between us and the Great Bustards resolved into a Little Bustard and then two, three and finally 11. Mostly these were hidden in the crop but occasionally they stood up. One even deigned to give us a view of its wing pattern by flapping and this happened to coincide with my efforts to take a record shot with Jess' phone for her.

Lucky Little Bustard shot!
Light was disappearing fast and we headed up the road to Higuerula. No more bustards were in evidence but we did manage to find a flock of what I presumed were golden plover. Something wasnt quite right as the first had a big supercilium, as did the second and third and we pushed further up to make the most of what was left of the light. The better lighting from this angle revealed what I had suspected, 37 Dotterel. Very definitely a Spanish tick for me! Jess mentioned that they are known for wintering on the plains of the area, not something I realised at all.

Bonete Estacion Black Redstart
A trip to the watchtower at the north of La Mata Salina the following day resulted in zero harriers (hen, marsh and Montagu's roost here at various points of the year), zero snakes and a multitude of Black-necked Grebes with at least 200 seen from the tower. There were probably c1,000 BNG on the Salina throughout the holiday but getting an accurate count on such a large waterbody proved impossible although well into three figures were viewable from any watch point.

Sierra Espuna
A trip to Sierra Espuna was not without its ornithological charms although chiefly this was a family fun outing into the mountains of Murcia. We zigzagged up to vertiginous heights on some very narrow and unprotected roads and amongst the pines were some cracking views which were decorated with Chough, Golden Eagle, Crested Tit, Crag Martin and Raven. Alas there were no snakes or lizards as it was fairly chilly at this altitude but it was all about the views and a ramble to collect some of the largest pine cones I have ever seen. We also came across Ice Houses which in winter were used to collect and keep ice to supply the local area with that rarest of southern Spanish commodities, cold.

Part of a flock of 70 Stone Curlew
The penultimate day of the holiday was largely spent swimming with the kids but a balcony coffee led to some vismig with 25 Song Thrush tumbling out of the sky in small groups after reaching the coast. Chaffinch and Meadow Pipit numbers increased and small parties of Serin bounded past. My only Common Redstart of the holiday was seen off by the resident Black Redstarts and headed into the Stone Pine scrub. I went for a meander around the south-east of the lake again and found the Stone Curlew flock had increased to 70 birds. These hid in the shrubs beside the waters edge and were only discernible if you were looking.

Iberian Grey Shrike
The final full day of the holiday started with a pass and I went to the Vistabella road which flanks El Hondo. I started in an area which allows access and viewing over the western lagoon (El Poniente). Here I kicked up four Green Sandpipers from a damp ditch, swiftly followed by half a dozen Snipe and finally a Jack Snipe. This was one of my finds of the trip and another Spanish lifer. I didnt really realise that these guys made it as far as Spain but this one, typically flushed at close range and flopped down along the ditch. I saw it on a handful of occasions as I moved along without getting great views on the ground. Once I got to my viewpoint the raptors started to emerge with a scattering of Marsh Harriers and single Osprey, Peregrine and Booted Eagle. No clanga eagles were seen but a Red Kite sallied over the sallows and eucalypts. This was a province first. Any kites are rare in Alicante - I have seen a total of three black kites which roosted in the reedbed one morning on migration and disappeared towards the mountains before the sunrise was in full effect (I watched a Red-necked Nightjar and a Montagu's Harrier playing chase at the same time). I moved along the road to where an Osprey was perched up - this is a breeding area for this species which is present year round. I assume it was the same bird I had seen catching fish on the lagoon. As I made my way to the hide I pushed a Bluethroat through the reedcut and managed one crappy photo.


The Osprey sat, looking bored on the post that I saw one on in 2015 at the same time of year. There was little else about and my Spanish birding was drawing to a close for another trip. Below are a few of the other photos that I managed whilst out there. We are currently planning to head to Cadiz province in late August 2020 for our summer holiday when hopefully the raptors are plentiful. I miss Spain already and I can't wait for my first Tarifa experience.

Light Morph Booted Eagle

Zitting Cisticola
Thekla Lark

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
Birds

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
Mammals
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.

Reptiles
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.

Amphibians
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
Butterflies
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
Dragonflies
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
Julia

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.

Peekaboo
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.

Unflustered

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

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive