Birder's Eye View

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fall Break, part 2

It's Sunday afternoon, and after having gotten back home around midnight from my trip to the panhandle, I'm exhausted. But the fun has only just begun -- I'm camping for the night at Ft. Desoto State Park with some friends from school.

We spend the afternoon relaxing and exploring along the coast of the island, wading in the cool water and looking for various critters. We find crabs and fish, various worms, and other strange creatures of the bay.

Our coolest find is a skate, laying lethargically in the shallows. It is unusually docile and allows us to examine it for a few minutes before it swims gently away.

As the sun begins to set, the shorebirds begin to emerge seemingly from nowhere. A Least Sandpiper scurries across the beach, while a Great Blue Heron lands not too far away.

The view from our campsite at sunset.

As soon as the sun went down, the raccoons came out. We could see them in the shadows and hear them chortling or growling at one another just out of sight.

The next morning, I rise with the sun and take a leisurely walk down the beach. The water is like glass, the stillness broken only by a few manatees splashing and rolling lazily in the distance.

Semipalmated plovers scurry about on the mudflats that have been exposed in the low tide, and more herons, egrets, and sandpipers forage nearby.

At one point I see an odd-shaped fin cutting through the water out in the distance. I snap a picture, thinking it might be a school of fish breaking the surface, but upon later review, my friends and I conclude it's a black-tipped reef shark!

The manatees continue to laze about all morning.

[Contrary to my original thoughts, this is actually a Black-bellied Plover -- thanks Heidi and Nick! -- not a lifer anymore, but still a cool bird!]

I also find a lone Ruddy Turnstone as well as another Least Sandpiper.

After packing up our campsite, we head to the beach for a few hours before making the drive back to school. I must say it was one of the best fall breaks I have ever had. It gave me some much-needed time outside, as well as a life bird to add to my list.

Now school is back into full swing, but I'm going to try and get outside more often when things slow down a little. Between applying for summer internships, TAing, working, and classwork, this semester is crazy busy. But we're over halfway done, and I have Christmas Bird Counts to look forward to over winter break!

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fall Break, part 1

It's 5 o'clock on Saturday morning and I'm riding in the back of a car, on a 4 hour journey up to the panhandle of Florida with my sister, her friend, and another friend. We're headed up to see the annual butterfly migration that takes place at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge every fall.

I'm not sure what to expect at first -- I've heard of them migrating in the tens of thousands, but I'm glad I didn't get my hopes up too much because when we finally arrive mid-morning, it's clear that most have already migrated through the area and moved on.

Nonetheless, there are still impressive numbers of Monarchs, Viceroys, Queens, and Gulf Fritilary butterflies swarming flowers and bushes along the trails by the St. Marks lighthouse.

It's a beautiful day -- perfect for butterfly watching, birding, and hiking. The wildlife refuge is holding an event to celebrate the butterfly migration, and the park is packed with families, retirees, photographers, and other wildlife enthusiasts.

Among the other wildlife we see are alligators, thousands of fiddler crabs, and tons of birds.

My favorite sighting at St. Marks is a Northern Harrier flying low over the marsh. It's impossible to get a picture though, as we're bumping along a dirt road and the raptor quickly disappears from sight.

Once we find where the butterflies are congregated, it makes  for some gorgeous photo ops.

After a quick lunch, we leave St. Marks to head off to another hiking destination, but not before stopping to check out some more cool birds. Two bald eagles stand guard around a ginormous nest, not far from where a red-shouldered hawk is perched on a sun-bleached snag in the middle of the marsh. I'm super excited to see these birds, even if they are fairly common!

Once we manage to pull ourselves away from the fantastic wildlife of St. Marks, we take an hour or so drive to Tate's Hell State Park, further west along the panhandle. We plan to hike a total of 6 miles roundtrip on the High Bluffs trail, which is accessed by an obscure forest road.

The trail is one of the easier ones I've been on, although slightly hilly due to the fact that we're in North Florida, and hiking up and down sand bluffs. The ground is soft with sugar sand, and mid-afternoon sun beats down on us; the trail has very little shade.

The terrain changes every mile or so, sometimes offering us high up views of the Gulf of Mexico, and sometimes we find ourselves in lower areas on the outskirts of a cyprus swamp, or an area of dry brush, or a dead forest of snags and undergrowth, marking remnants of old hurricane damage.

As we near the halfway point of mile 3, someone in our party points out a bear track! It's small, apparently a bear cub, but as we proceed we find fresh bear scat and more tracks -- larger tracks. There are also wide animal trails leading off the main trail.

We follow one of them, but it leads us into a bog of squelchy mud, thick with saw grass that slices easily through our legs and leaves a stinging, burning sensation for the remaining duration of the hike. Needless to say, we turn back and finish the hike on the main trail.

By now it is getting towards late afternoon and birds begin to sing and call. I hear cardinals, Carolina wrens, pine warblers, mockingbirds, tufted titmice, and blue jays calling through the sparse pine flatwoods. My favorite is an Eastern wood-pewee that shows up right before we get back to the parking lot.

It was an incredible day. It felt so good to spend the entire day outdoors, hiking until exhaustion, and spending time with my sister and others who enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. And that was only the start of fall break! The next day I would be in a totally different part of the state, camping for the night by the beach...

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Kayaking around

Just wanted to post a few pictures that I took yesterday while kayaking with a friend around school. Haven't had much time to get outside lately, but yesterday was an exception. Fantastic fall weather coming in, beautiful day out, and the water was a still as could be -- perfect paddling conditions! Saw lots of wildlife and the usual birds, so it was a lovely afternoon. Hopefully I'll be getting outside more in the next few weeks!

Happy birding!

Labels: , ,