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Friday, January 30, 2015

Superb Sparrows featuring Nelson's, Swamp and Savannah plus Eastern Meadowlark and Western Kingbird

[SW Florida. December 2014]

Nelson's Sparrow has proven to be stubbornly averse to photographic observation with this blogger's prior attempts having been resoundingly defeated and rendered utterly fruitless on more than one occasion. Would a winter trip to SW Florida finally break the jinx?

A quick tour of hotspots in Southwest Florida including Bunche Beach Preserve (Ft. Myers), Church Rd (Felda) and Festival Park in Cape Coral, yielded a thrilling assortment of iconic species -- including the elusive Nelson's -- with species such as:
  • Nelson's Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Florida Scrub-Jay (endemic)
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Western Kingbird; and,
  • Loggerhead Shrike
We start with the sparrows:

Optimistic that the time was ripe for lifting the curse of the "no show" Nelson's, this blogger jumped at the opportunity to meet up with Bob Pelkey behind the Publix at John Morris and Summerlin at Bunche Beach Preserve.

Nelson's Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach Preserve
After diligently slogging through the tall grass in marshy habitat, and frustratingly beguiled into mis-identification by the odd Palm Warbler, our quarry was finally sighted. However, it would take a repeat attempt before the Nelson's Sparrow would acquiesce to photography.

Nelson's Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach Preserve
Both Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sparrow can be found at this venue (indeed, both were seen) and their similarity can spark confusion. The difference boils down to the degree of buffiness and the boldness of the streaking on the flanks -- Nelson's is buffier overall while Saltmarh's streaking is crisper and bolder.

Nelson's Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach Preserve
Elation over the successful sighting and (digital) capture of the Nelson's outweighed any concern over soggy footwear due to water-logging in this marshy area. A small price to pay for a Lifer!

Not too far from the Nelson's was the other sparrow species -- Swamp Sparrow:

Swamp Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach
With a grey face, black eyeline, reddish back and an unmarked grey breast, the Swamp Sparrow ranges across the Eastern half of the US. Contrast this with the Nelson's Sparrow which is much more restricted in its distribution -- found breeding only in the interior US and coastal North Atlantic.

Swamp Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach
Our third sparrow in the series is Savannah -- observed well at Harns Marsh:

Savannah Sparrow seen at Harns Marsh
Harns Marsh has been reliable for sparrow observation on prior occasions (eg., a Grasshopper Sparrow in Feb 2013) and Savannah Sparrows on this visit were found fairly commonly -- alternately flushing from, and dropping into, the thick grasses.

Savannah Sparrow seen at Harns Marsh
Compared to its breeding plumage (eg., a specimen from Michigan in May), there is less yellow on the supercilium but otherwise both alternate and basic plumages are similar. Savannah Sparrows are found coast to coast in the US and it is uniquely the Western subspecies,  the Belding's Savannah Sparrow, that tends to be darker and larger billed.

In Cape Coral, the target species was the Florida Scrub-Jay:

Florida Scrub-Jay seen at Festival Park
Endemic to Florida and classified as "Vulnerable", it is a delight to see these beautiful corvids amidst the ugly suburban sprawl of Cape Coral.

Florida Scrub-Jay seen at Festival Park

Also reliable at Festival Park is the unsung Icterid, Eastern Meadowlark:

Eastern Meadowlark seen at Festival Park

Eastern Meadowlark seen at Festival Park
While many of our blackbirds are atrocious songsters (Grackles, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, etc), it is only the Orioles and Meadowlarks that can truly musically impress.

Eastern Meadowlark seen at Festival Park

Southern Florida is fortunate to attract a unique mix of overwintering flycatchers -- besides the drab Eastern Phoebe, there are the more flamboyant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Western Kingbird as well.

While a trip with Bob to Church Rd failed to offer up Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, we were kept amused by a small group of Western Kingbird:

Western Kingbird seen at Church Rd

Western Kingbird seen at Church Rd

It is always a delight to observe these bold and noisy tyrant flycatchers. 

Finally, Southern Florida is one of the few places where Loggerhead Shrike is thriving -- even in suburban areas:

Loggerhead Shrike seen at Festival Park
We end with a Bonus Bird:

Sandhill Crane seen at Harns Marsh

A Sandhill Crane flyby seen at Harns Marsh.

Sparrows are the "little brown jobs" that can both confound and delight in equal measure and a Lifer in the form of Nelson's Sparrow assured that this excursion to SW Florida was a success on many levels -- not least for finally breaking the Nelson's jinx!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

December Delight: 8 Wintering Warbler Species in Southwest Florida and the Miami Birding Wave

[Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, FL. December 2014]

Southwest Florida has an active and flourishing birding community that includes both full- and part-time residents engaged in the infinitely rewarding recreational obsession known as Birding. This vibrant community is active in a lot of different ways:
The above is not exhaustive and there are probably more resources than I am presently aware (please post a comment below on additional resources).

Thus, I was intrigued when I chanced upon the following Mission Statement:
After ongoing conversations about the state of Miami’s birding community, several like-minded individuals decided to put words into action. We are here to stir the pot.

The Miami Birding Wave aspires to encourage the development of our community, serve as an olive branch to new and established birders, and shape the image of the birding culture in the Magic City.


Indeed, it appears what's already happening in SW Florida now appears to be organically taking root on the other side of Alligator Alley and the result is the Miami Birding Wave (contact Alex Harper).  A quick browse through this website and it becomes evident that the protagonists of this birding revitalization movement have rapidly accomplished some really cool stuff: chasing rarities (Key West Quail Dove), conducting birding blitzes (128 species in the Miami metro area in a day) and more.

What caught this blogger's eye, however, was a recent post by young birder Carlos Sanchez on how 20 is par for the course for wintering warblers in the Miami area -- that's an astounding number! Of course, SW Florida can best this number in Spring migration but for wintering warblers, this number is hard to beat. Based on personal experience, SW Florida offers the following 10 wintering warblers reliably:
  1. Pine Warbler
  2. Prairie Warbler
  3. Palm Warbler
  4. Black-and-white Warbler
  5. Myrtle Warbler
  6. Northern Parula
  7. Ovenbird
  8. Common Yellowthroat
  9. Yellow-throated Warbler
  10. Black-throated Green Warbler
With 2 more possible: American Redstart and Northern Waterthrush. However, this number is still only half of what the Miami Birding Wave are finding -- 25 species this winter including Swainson's, Worm-eating, Orange-crowned and Magnolia --Well done Miami Birding Wave!

In this blogger's recent trip to SW Florida, only the following 8 warbler species were observed -- a number, now seemingly grossly inadequate, that will surely have to be improved upon in the future!

We start with Black-and-white Warbler:

Black-and-white Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Black-and-white Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Black-and-white Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

The Black-and-white is one of our most photogenic warblers. Comparatively easy to spot owing to its tendency to hug tree trunks and branches, its "speed foraging" makes photography challenging.
Common Yellowthroat:

Common Yellowthroat seen at Bunche Beach

Common Yellowthroat seen at Bunche Beach

Common Yellowthroat seen at Bunche Beach
Unlike the generously visible Black-and-white Warbler, the Common Yellowthroat remains hidden in weedy areas and views are brief.

Myrtle Warbler:

Myrtle Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Myrtle Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Demoted to subspecies status since 1973, Myrtle Warbler is now lumped with 3 other sub-species (Audubon's Warbler (Western US), Black-fronted Warbler (NW Mexico) and Goldman's Warbler (Guatemala) -- read this excellent article on the associated genetics) as the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Northern Parula seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Northern Parula is a year-round resident at Corkscrew and this male is already coming into its alternate plumage.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Prairie Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Prairie Warbler, like the Parula, is a resident species although numbers are likely augmented by wintering migrants.

Pine Warbler:

Pine Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Pine Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Pine Warblers are not infrequently encountered with Brown-headed Nuthatches and Yellow-throated Warblers at Corkscrew.

Palm Warbler:

Palm Warbler seen at Bunche Beach

Palm Warbler seen at Bunche Beach
Palm Warblers are on the drabbest warblers in their winter plumage and can be found foraging virtually anywhere in SW Florida -- in urban parking lots, sandy beaches, and wooded areas.


Yellow-throated Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Yellow-throated Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Yellow-throated Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Yellow-throated Warbler appears to be taking advantage of global warming by extending their summer range into the Northern reaches of the US. They were observed by this blogger for the first time at Magee Marsh last Spring.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Raptor Roundup: Crested Caracara, Red-shouldered Hawk and Burrowing Owl

[SW Florida. December 2014]

The Raptors comprise a fascinating group of species including:
  • Eagles, Kites, Harriers, and Typical Hawks (Accipters)
  • Buzzards and Buteo Hawks
  • Osprey
  • Vultures (both Old and New World)
  • Falcons, Kestrels, and Caracaras
  • Owls
Shrikes, though no less in ferocity as hunters, are not included in the birds of prey classified as raptors.

A winter sojourn in Southwest Florida afforded an excellent opportunity to savor a small sample of species in this distinctive group:
  • Northern Crested Caracara (fka Audubon's Crested Caracara)
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
We start with the Caracara:

Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd

Caracaras are large, imposing falcons of the New World; and, as of just a hundred years ago, there were 3 Caracara species on this planet: Northern, Southern, and Guadalupe. The Guadalupe species was shot and poisoned to extinction by farmers who believed their goat herds were at risk of predation and the Guadalupe Caracara went from being Common to Extinct in a remarkably short span of time. 

The final coup de grace, however, was unwittingly delivered by the American ornithologist Rollo Beck (of Beck's Petrel fame) who "collected" most of the last remaining survivors in 1900 (a pattern he regrettably and infamously repeated by "collecting" 3 of the last 4 Pinta Island tortoises with identical results).

Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Although belonging to the Falconidae, the Caracara is neither a formidable hunter nor a a swift, aerial missile like other "true" (Falco) falcons such as the Peregrine. It is, however, a large scavenging raptor, weighing up to 3 lbs with wings that span over 4 ft in length.

Immature Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Thanks to an invite from master photographer and wildlife enthusiast, Bob Pelkey, this blogger arrived at a prime area for Crested Caracara, Western Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher -- known in the local birding community as "Church Rd". This hotspot is located about a mile west of where Rt. 29 and Church Rd intersect in Hendry Co.

Northern Crested Caracara seen at and in Church Rd -- proving why road fatalities are a major concern
In Florida, it is estimated that there are about 500 breeding pairs of Crested Caracara and the species is listed as "Threatened". The Florida population is a distinct population segment (DPS) separated from their kin in Texas since the last glacial age.

As the picture above shows, Caracaras are frequently found by the roadside where they benefit from easy access to roadkill. Unfortunately, this is a deadly blessing -- in one study, up to 55% of tagged Caracaras died from vehicle collisions (FWS Study).
Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Northern Crested Caracara seen at Church Rd
Threats to the US population aside, globally, the numbers of Northern Caracara are increasing and the species is listed as "Least Concern".

Unlike the Caracara, the Red-shouldered Hawk is no scavenger but a formidable hunter:

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Red-shouldered embodies all the characteristics we would expect from a Buteo hawk -- a compact, sturdy build, broad, rounded wings and a comparatively short tail.

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
This particular hawk devoured a Grey Catbird with great gusto and efficiency in precisely 18 minutes and 50 seconds resulting in both horrified amazement and awe on part of the observer.

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
This is a colorful hawk but most of us will not see this when the hawk is either soaring or perched standing still. The full beauty of the Red-shouldered Hawk is more easily appreciated at close quarters when the strongly contrasting checkered tail and wings, finely barred front, rufous streaking on the face, head and breast, and scalloped back are more clearly visible.

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Corkscrew Swamp
After completing its hearty meal of Grey Catbird, this Red-shouldered Hawk proceeded to call loudly -- this is courting season for the hawks and they are getting ready to nest.

Unlike Hawks, most Owls are nocturnal raptors. However, the Burrowing Owl is active during the day more than most:
Burrowing Owl seen at Cape Coral
Another example of why Florida is unique in birding, the Burrowing Owl, like the Caracara, is found only in the Western US other than in the state of Florida.

Burrowing Owl seen at Cape Coral
This uniquely terrestrial owl is hanging on in Florida in the face of rampant development.

Burrowing Owl seen at Cape Coral
While the Osprey is commonly called a "Fish Hawk", it is not a hawk -- indeed, it is placed in its own Family.

Osprey seen at Harns Marsh
The Osprey, like the Peregrine Falcon, is a truly global raptor found widely in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Osprey seen with nesting material at Bunche Beach
While a handful of subspecies are recognized, it is quite possible that they will be awarded full species status in the future given their isolation. Indeed, the Australian Osprey which is the smallest and most distinctive, is already recognized by some as a full species known as "Eastern Osprey".

Finally, our National bird -- the Bald Eagle:

Bald Eagle seen at Bunche Beach
The perils confronted by the raptors are very real -- toxins, human persecution, and loss of habitat. However, the comeback of the Bald Eagle from near extinction is a telling example of the success that conservation efforts can achieve.