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Monday, April 28, 2014

Least Terns Arrive at Little Estero Lagoon

[Little Estero Lagoon, Fl. April 2014]

The aptly named Least Tern is our smallest tern. They are Spring/Summer visitors to the US and favor the same nesting sites that we do for recreation -- wide, sandy beaches.

A small group of volunteers at Little Estero Lagoon help in cordoning off some beach space for these delicate terns which have to contend with thundering beach joggers, impervious beach combers, and the ever-present fishermen and their extensive fishing paraphernalia.

Least Terns, in addition to coastal sites in the Southern US, are also found at our major river systems -- a habitat where they're doing much worse; bad enough to earn a Federal designation as an endangered species. Their raucous calls pierce the air just as their plunge dives pierce the water -- making the beach feel more alive and vibrant this time of year.

The protected area at Little Estero not only helps the terns but other species as well; especially the breeding Wilson's and Snowy Plovers.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson's Plover is second only to the Black-bellied Plover in size at our beaches. The bill is robust while the legs are a dull pinkish grey. 

Snowy Plover

Much smaller than Wilson's, the Snowy Plover has a slimmer bill, silvery legs, and a broken chest band. Its mainly white plumage, black headband and sandy back give it excellent camouflage. It is no longer considered a subspecies of the Old World Kentish Plover.

With peak shorebird migration still weeks away, there was not much else Little Estero had to offer except a Least Sandpiper (above) and a Willet (below).

This venue is excellent for American Oystercatcher (although none were seen on this occasion) and hosts Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitcher, Whimbrel, Semipalmated Sandpiper and even Avocets in migration. Ruddy Turnstone (below) is seen year round.

Spring is renowned for its songbird migration; however, hotspots such as Little Estero Lagoon should not be overlooked for coastal specialties.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Spring Arrivals at Lake St. Clair Metropark: Winter Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, MI. April 2014]

A Spring thaw at one of the premier birding spots in SE Michigan attracts some early migrants such as:
  • Brown Creeper
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Winter Wren
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Flicker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Bonaparte's Gull
  • Pied-billed Grebe
Also seen were American Kestrel, Sandhill Crane, Song Sparrow, Herring Gull and Canvasback, and the season's first shorebird -- Killdeer. Virginia Rail was heard but water levels around the boardwalk in the marsh were too high to permit observation.

Brown Creeper

A frustrating species to photographically capture -- fidgety, well camouflaged and tiny,  the Brown Creeper is a year-round resident in Michigan. Its numbers are stable.

 Brown Thrasher

A secretive bird, this Brown Thrasher was seen digging up the leaf litter for food. Its bright yellow eyes and rich rusty upperparts make this mimid a very distinctive songbird. The Brown Thrasher is a near endemic -- with the 8% of the Brown Thrasher population found in Canada standing in between full endemic status. Numbers of this beautiful bird have declined 40% since the 60's.

Hermit Thrush

After the American Robin, our next arriving turdid is the Hermit Thrush. The smudgy breast spots and red tail on this thrush are useful field marks.

Winter Wren

In a tangled mess of sticks and rotten wood, a tiny wren with an upright tail cocked straight up hops among the thickets. The impossibly cute Winter Wren is a breeder in the Northern forests of Canada and winters across the Eastern US. Its cousins are the Pacific Wren of the Western US and the Eurasian Wren.

White-thorated Sparrow

An attractive, large sparrow, the White-throated Sparrow is found in Winter across much of the US but breeds in the high North; they are an abundant species with a population estimated at over 100 million.

Northern Flicker at nest

At this time of year, the flickers were extremely active and frequently found looking for ants and other insects on the ground. The woods were alive with their calls and rapid drumming.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Another specialized woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, drills shallow holes to extract sap from trees. This individual is a male -- as evidenced by the red throat.

A quick walk to the splash area at the lake shore resulted in no notable shorebirds (except Killdeer) but hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls.

Bonaparte's Gull

A delicate gull with pink-red legs and a black hood, this is the only gull that nests in trees. Its numbers are increasing.

Pied-billed Grebe

Found across North and South America, Pied-billed Grebe is an abundant and widespread grebe. In breeding plumage, it develops a black throat and the bill becomes ringed in black.

Two other species were observed but only briefly:

An American Kestrel perched before a Red-winged Blackbird dive-bombed it away; and, ...

.. an overhead flypast of a bugling Sandhill Crane.

Other species included Song Sparrows which were very active and visible...

A couple of Herring Gull were also present by the shore; their size dwarfing the Bonaparte's Gulls.

A male canvasback -- a rare sight when seen out of the water.

Of course, it wouldn't be Spring without the American Robin -- now ubiquitous and found equally in the woods as well as suburbia. Black-capped Chickadees were common as well.

The lone shorebird was this handsome killdeer -- the only double banded plover in the US.

The Starling family has some spectacular species like the Bali Myna, the Superb Starling, Purple Starling; etc. And, although sturnus vulgaris is despised here as an over-abundant invasive exotic, in its breeding colors, it can, nevertheless, be quite stunning.

Misguided romantics were happily releasing European Starlings in America in the late 1800's while their compatriots were delighting in ensuring every last Passenger Pigeon was shot dead out of the sky. And of course, we know how this story ends: There are now perhaps 200 million European Starlings in the US and exactly zero passenger pigeons. A double whammy for our avian ecology as the Starlings continue to outcompete native species for food and nesting sites.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Migration Crossroads in Southwest Florida Starring Summer Tanager, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Kentucky Warbler

[Sanibel Lighthouse and Corkscrew Swamp, Sanibel, FL. April 2014]

Around the first week of April, migration momentum is starting to build in Southwest Florida. And, Sanibel Island is a great landing point (or launch pad) for arriving migrants (or departing ones). In late April, the South-bound migrants such as Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Western Kingbird will have left; so early April is the better time to observe both arriving and departing species at this crossroads of migration that is the Sanibel Lighthouse. The other migration hotspot included here is Corkscrew Swamp which sometimes offers a different mix of species than the lighthouse.

The full list of observed species is as follows:

Tanagers, Grosbeaks and Buntings:
  • Summer Tanager
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak 
  • Palm Warbler
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Kentucky Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler 
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Black-and-white Warbler
 Tyrant Flycatchers:
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  • Western Kingbird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Grey Kingbird
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Yellow-throated Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue-headed Vireo 
  • Swallow-tailed Kite
We start with the Summer Tanager:

Summer Tanager observed at the "Picnic Area" of the Lighthouse

Summer Tanager is hailed as our only "completely red" bird -- it is redder than a Northern Cardinal with none of its black markings. Speaking of cardinals, the Summer Tanager has been reclassified from the Tanager family to the Cardinals. Seen above gorging on fruit, Summer Tanagers are also insect eaters (especially bees).

Indigo Bunting seen at Sanibel Lighthouse

Another member of the Cardinal family, Indigo Bunting is a small, brilliant blue, seed-eating bird (eating insects in the summer). They are night migrants and navigate by the stars.

Blue Grosbeak seen at the Sanibel Lighthouse

Larger and a darker blue than the Indigo, the Blue Grosbeak, with distinctive chestnut wingbars, is an unmistakable bird of shrub habitat. It is expanding its range Northward as forests are cleared; they can be seen as far North as Ohio.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak seen at Corkscrew Swamp

The spectacular Rose-breasted Grosbeak ranges farther North than the Blue and prefers woodland habitat; it is classified as "Least Concern" and is renowned for the sweetness of its song.

Now the warblers:

Hooded Warbler

The Hooded Warbler has a preference for the understory; and, sure enough, this individual was found foraging amidst the shrub. This Eastern warbler is always a crowd pleaser given its distinctive looks.

Kentucky Warbler seen at Sanibel Lighthouse

The Kentucky Warbler ranges in the Southeastern US; famed for its skulking habits, it is largely terrestrial in its habits. Any sighting of this warbler comes at a high cost to the birder -- exacting frustration and patience as it hides and feeds in dense thickets offering rare and obscured glimpses.

On the other hand, both the Tennessee and Cape May Warblers are generally easily seen in foliage gleaning for insects. Both species are breeders in the boreal forests of Canada.

Cape May Warbler seen at Sanibel Lighthouse

One of the pleasures (and, more importantly, advantages) of birding in a group (that inevitably and spontaneously forms at well known migration hotspots), is that not only are more species sighted but also delightful birding lore can be exchanged with fellow birders.

And, the Lighthouse venue was no exception -- the Kentucky Warbler was spotted by Vince McGrath, the Tennessee Warbler by Don and Lillian Stokes (among others), and the Cape May Warbler by Tom Obrock while developments in the local birding community were shared by Gayle Sheets of the Lee County Bird Patrol.

Tennessee Warbler seen at Sanibel Lighthouse

There are 4 warblers named after US States (Kentucky, Connecticut, and Tennessee Warblers plus Louisiana Waterthrush). Two of these 4 "State Warblers" were sighted at the Lighthouse.

Palm Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Moving to Corkscrew Swamp, a spectacular Palm Warbler in breeding plumage was joined by a mostly invisible Northern Waterthrush -- betraying its presence through loud chips that even to the initiated sound very similar to those of the Northern Cardinal.

Northern Waterthrush at Corkscrew Swamp

The other warbler at Corkscrew is the tiny Northern Parula; although it is likely not migrating -- indeed, at this time the males are on territory.

Northern Parula seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Black and White Warblers numbers are thinning out at the Swamp as they start their Northbound migration.

Black and White seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Besides warblers, Tyrant Flycatchers were another migration attraction with the highlight being the always stunning Scissor-tailed Flycatcher:

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher seen at Sanibel Lighthouse

This distinctive flycatcher is headed to Texas over the Gulf as is it's migration partner, the  Western Kingbird:

Both were joined by several Eastern Kingbirds:

Eastern Kingbird seen at the Lighthouse

While the Eastern Kingbirds will be headed further North, the next tyrant flycatcher has just arrived from the Caribbean and will stay in Florida for the summer: the Grey Kingbird:

Grey Kingbird seen at the Lighthouse

Finally a resident species: the Great Crested Flycatcher:

We end with Vireos -- Yellow-throated, Red-eyed and Blue-headed:

Yellow-throated Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo seen the Lighthouse

Blue-headed Vireo seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Raptors migrate too -- and nothing defines Florida Birding better than its mascot -- the Swallow-tailed Kite:

A couple of bonus birds to end the post -- migrating Orchard Oriole:

Orchard Oriole seen at the Lighthouse

.. and a resident Pileated Woodpecker:

The spectacle of migration never ceases to amaze; and, Southwest Florida is a great venue to experience nature's magic of movement.