Birder's Eye View

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Camping trip, last day

Our final morning in the woods dawns cool and damp -- no rain during the night, thank goodness, but everything is covered in dew and the air hangs heavy with clamminess.

As we warm up by the fire during breakfast, the forest is alive with birds. A huge pileated woodpecker sets up shop right above our tent, hammering away at an oak tree. Downy woodpeckers "peep" to one another all around, and my mother, while taking a walk down by the river, photographs a yellow-bellied sapsucker! I'm not going to lie -- I'm jealous!

In addition to the woodpeckers, there are also the usual Eastern phoebes and towhees that have claimed our campsite as their territory. The phoebe tries to fight its reflection in our car window for a little while, before losing interesting and flying away. The towhee on the other hand is more interested in eating the old corn grounds in the bushes.

In late morning, once our fire has died out we take a long hike on one of the upland trails that follows the path of the river. Compared to the trekking we were doing over the uneven terrain the last two days down by the river, this flat trail is a piece of cake to walk.

I'm amazed by the habitat diversity in the area. We go from pine flatwoods, to centuries-old oak groves, to cypress swamps, to fields of grass.

In the more open areas, I find mixed feeding flocks of pine and palm warblers flitting across the path. Also along the river I find a pair of common ground doves, a species I rarely see.

Although my photo didn't capture it well, a brilliantly colored blue-gray gnatcatcher spent some time in an oak tree along our way as well.

Not far past the gnatcatcher, two black-and-white warblers scale the oaks with skillful agility. I love these guys -- they're so much fun to watch, and so well disguised!

Reindeer moss
We make it back to camp in early afternoon, and, perhaps with some reluctance, pack everything up and cram it into the trunk of the car. It was quite honestly the best camping trip I have ever been on, even despite the first cold night. below is my bird count for the three days:

  1. eastern towhee
  2. northern cardinal
  3. black-and-white warbler
  4. carolina wren
  5. chipping sparrow
  6. common ground dove
  7. american crow
  8. black vulture
  9. turkey vulture
  10. bald eagle
  11. eastern phoebe
  12. pileated woodpecker
  13. downy woodpecker
  14. palm warbler
  15. pine warbler
  16. mourning dove
  17. red-shouldered hawk
  18. carolina chickadee
  19. tufted titmouse
  20. great blue heron
  21. anhinga
  22. blue-gray gnatcatcher
  23. ovenbird
Until next time,

Happy birding!

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 27, 2010

Camping trip, day 2

I spend most of the first night half-awake, curled up at the bottom of my sleeping bag, shivering. Temperatures have dropped into the 30s, and with only 3 people in our big family tent, our body heat does little to improve the conditions. It's so cold, not a cricket chirps, nor an owl hoots. The only sound is far off traffic from I-75 some miles away, the occasional snarl of a raccoon, and hunting dogs baying in the distance.

By 4am, we are all significantly chilled to the bone and sleepless. We agree to push our sleeping bags together  to try and warm up, and then get up in an hour for a pre-dawn hike. Somehow though, as soon as we huddle up together, I finally drop off to sleep and don't wake up for 3 hours until I hear my mother exclaiming that it's 7am. So much for that early hike, but at least I finally got some sleep!

After an interesting (and as I'm sure you can guess, extremely graceful) contortionist act, I manage the challenging task of changing my clothes without ever leaving my sleeping bag. It isn't until I pull on my shoes that I realize I can't feel my feet. At all. Fun!

As I'm gathering firewood so we can make breakfast, I find the river is blanketed with mist hovering just over the surface. It's beautiful in the early morning sun -- the camera doesn't even capture the full effect.

After breakfast, as I'm sitting by the fire defrosting my feet, I idly look up at the sky. By chance, there are 3 bald eagles soaring overhead! They're waaaaaay up high, but my camera is handy and I manage a couple pictures before they fly away, calling out as they disappear over the tree tops.

Around midmorning we take a hike down the river, the opposite direction we had hiked the day before. The trail is a little more difficult here -- in fact, it's not really a trail at all, but simply a series of animal trails, river bank, and cypress knees to climb over. At one point, we come across an anhinga sunning itself in the sand. It takes off as we approach.

Cypress along the banks

After lunch, we drive a few miles down the road to Silver Lake, a recreation area we found on the park map. We hike the trails there for a little while, finding two red-shouldered hawks, and more of the usual birds I've been seeing around camp.

Silver Lake

Once again, the scenery is just gorgeous. The fall colors are at their brightest, the sky is clear, and all sorts of birds and wildlife are out and about.

We return to camp in late afternoon to start the fire again and boil water for a spaghetti dinner. I slip away for a while to climb up into a tree leaning out over the riverbank, and watch the sun set over the Withlacoochee.

The temperature is dropping again, but not nearly as unbearable as the last night. Crickets are singing again, and I can hear raccoons, squirrels and rabbits rustling around in the bushes. Thick clouds roll in and it looks like it's going to rain, so before bed we hide our firewood under the car just in case.

Although it's still chilly, it stays dry all night and I manage to sleep this time! Tomorrow is our last day and we're in for a long hike and some good birding before heading home just in time for Christmas.

Check back later for day 3!

Labels: , ,

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Bird Count

It's another early morning for me! At 5am my alarm startles me out of a deep sleep and after downing a quick breakfast, I throw on my jacket and drive out into the cold darkness of pre-dawn for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

After meeting up with the other two birders in my group, we drive out to the access road marking the start of our 4.3 mile route -- the same route I did last year, and I'm hoping this time we won't be flooded up to our knees! The prospects don't look good however; the weather forecast calls for a wet cold front with rain and violent winds all day.

As it turns out, the terrible weather does make for difficult birding. It's still almost pitch dark as we pick our way down the trail, but there is not a single owl or whip-poor-will to be heard above the roaring wind. We take our time until the sun begins to rise and before we know it, hundreds of robins are erupting out of the palmettos.

The three of us are caught off guard suddenly when not one, nor two, nor three, but FIVE huge birds of prey fly towards us just over the tops of the pines. It's still dark outside so they are silhouetted against the dark blue sky, but they're definitely hawks of some kind. It makes no sense. Hawks never fly in groups of five!

None of us can figure out what they are in the few seconds they're visible through the clearing. From what I can tell, there is some kind of mottled coloration under the wings: a darkish head, and black/brown and white patches all over the underside. But it's still dark outside and impossible to know for sure. We are totally dumbfounded! It's frustrating, but after looking at all the "hawk" possibilities in Sibley's Guide, it gets light outside and we can't spend anymore time scrutinizing.

We trudge on ahead as the temperature drops and the wind picks up, tossing sprinkles of rain in our faces (why is the CBC always on the coldest, nastiest day of the year??). We count a few hundred more robins, and dozens of yellow-rumped warblers.

To our surprise, 2 of those mysterious hawks fly over again back from the direction they were flying before! One of them calls out, a short, high-pitched kind of cry, not like anything I've ever heard before. It was sort of  eagle-like, but not quite. They are only visible for a couple seconds, and audible only  for a fraction of a second. We still could never figure out what they were, despite seeing them so closely and even hearing the call. (If anyone has any suggestions of what kind of hawk might fly in groups and fly low in the trees, let me know!)

The rest of the hike goes surprisingly well, despite the conditions. We count more yellow-rumped and pine warblers, carolina wrens, downy woodpeckers, and even three ruby-crowned kinglets blowing around in the trees. A couple tufted titmice and blue-gray gnatcatchers are spotted as well.

My favorite find for the day shows up about two-thirds of the way through our route -- we have just gone through a relatively dead zone when out of the corner of my eye, I notice a woodpecker land at the top of a tall pine tree. I point it out, thinking it's a red-bellied woodpecker, a bird we haven't counted yet.

But no, its colors are all wrong through the binoculars! Dark patterned wings with a bright white stripe, yellowish-brown belly, striped head -- it has to be... a yellow-bellied sapsucker! There's no doubt about it. It's a lifer!

For the rest of the hike, most of the birds are about the same. We find a red-tailed hawk at the very end, flying in place against the gusty wind. After counting up the list, it appears we have a total of about 20 species, not counting the unidentifiable hawks. That's actually WAY better than I thought we would have, and only a few less species than we had for the same route last year.

It was a great CBC, once again, even with the uncooperative weather. Below is a list of the birds I could remember off the top of my head (I'll have to get the actual tally later).
  1. American Robin 
  2. Yellow-rumped Warbler 
  3. Downy Woodpecker 
  4. Tufted Titmouse
  5. Carolina Wren
  6. Black Vulture
  7. Turkey Vulture
  8. Red-tailed Hawk
  9. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  10. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  11. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  12. Laughing Gull
  13. American Crow
  14. Red-shouldered Hawk
  15. Pine Warbler
  16. Northern Cardinal
  17. White Ibis
  18. Hairy woodpecker
  19. (And a couple more I'm forgetting)

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and very happy birding in the New Year! 

Off to a CBC tomorrow, so stay tuned for updates. I'll also resume my camping trip report later this week. :-)

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 24, 2010

Camping trip, day 1

3:00am. I was woken suddenly by the annoying beeping sound of my cellphone alarm, but after fumbling with it in the dark for a moment to shut it off, I jumped down off the bunk bed, threw on some boots, and ran outside. Before I even got out of porch, I could already tell the glow from the full moon had turned everything a rusty red.
The full lunar eclipse early Tuesday morning truly was spectacular, and apparently the first one on a winter solstice since 1638, and the last one until 2092. I watched it for a while, snapped some pictures (this was the only one that came out well), and then eventually went back to bed to get a few more hours of sleep until we headed off to go camping that morning.

By the time we got to our campsite, it was about midday. The weather and the scenery were spectacular, and the first thing we did after setting up camp across from the crystal clear river was to take a long hike along the bank.

The trail was narrow, and eventually petered out to little more than an animal trail winding in and out of the hugest cypress knees I have ever seen. It became pretty challenging at some parts, where the only way to proceed was to climb vertically or horizontally through the trees so as not to fall in the river!

The fall colors -- well, winter by this point I guess! -- were spectacular.

At one point my sister found this tiny little bird skull along the bank. No other bones around it, but it appears to be some sort of passerine maybe (anyone good at IDing birds by their bones?). I didn't keep the skull since it's illegal to possess dead songbirds, but I took a few record pictures to look it up later.

We made it back to our campsite mid-afternoon, so I spent the rest of the time looking for more birds. I found several ovenbirds, tons of cardinals, chickadees, and chipping sparrows.

There was also a rather large rabbit hanging around the area, nibbling at the bushes not far from our site.

We managed to start a fire where we made roast potatoes, and venison steaks my sister had gotten from her last deer hunt a couple months ago. 'Twas delicious! As night fell, the moon rose (white this time -- no more eclipse!), the temperatures dipped down into the 40s as soon as the sun was gone. Although our trip was off to a great start, we were in for a very long, cold night...

Check back later for Day 2!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, December 20, 2010

Outside again

Fence Lizard
Well, I'm finally home on winter break from school for a couple weeks -- the longest I've been home in about 6 months! And of course we know what a break from school means: I get to play outside! :-)

On Friday my family and I took a little hike through Withlacoochee Forest, which was aglow with fall colors (well, as much fall colors as we get down here). The weather was a perfect 70 degrees, the air crystal clear. Red-shouldered Hawks called through the woods, while Pine and Palm Warblers flitted around in the treetops. 
The river was exceptionally low, which meant little islands around the cypress stands were exposed. My siblings and I hiked and climbed and clambered around the cypress knees to our hearts' content. I felt like a little kid again!

Hog wallows 
Unfortunately as we were hiking, we found much of the area was torn of up by wild hogs. It seems that in the last few years, the "wild" boar population (of course, as most know, they're actually feral and quite destructive) has skyrocketed in Florida, and the evidence is quite clear.

It has been great to get outside again these last couple days. The weather has been lovely -- a brisk 40-something degrees today and the feeders around the house are filled with Chipping Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Wrens.

Tomorrow my mother, sister, and I are going on a 2-day camping trip. I can't wait! 

Labels: , , ,