Monthly Archives: March 2018

Field trip to Platt’s Creek

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Pie-billed Grebe… “part bird, part submarine.”

A week ago, on March 21st, I went on a field trip organized by the local Audubon to Platt’s Creek Preserve, a restored wetland area in St. Lucie County.

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Incoming ducks.

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These were Mottled Ducks. We had two expert birders leading the trip, Eva Ries and David Simpson, and their identifications and commentary were so helpful and educational.

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A couple of males were fighting for a few minutes.

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A male and a female watched.

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Boat-tailed Grackles were everywhere, and the males were noisy, bold and impossible to ignore.

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When you smell saltwater on the East Coast, it’s time to look out for Boat-tailed Grackles. The glossy blue-black males are hard to miss as they haul their ridiculously long tails around or display from marsh grasses or telephone wires.

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This is a Blue-headed Vireo, a new bird to me that is a “common and vocal bird of Northeastern forests.” Our expert birders identified it by its song. Maybe someday I will be able to do that too.

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In our party of 10, I am the one who spotted the  Bald Eagle first and I’m pretty proud of that. What a bird, look at those wings!

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Northern Harrier that appears to be pursued by a Tree Swallow? This could have just been the angle of the photo, or maybe that little bird was pissed off.

We saw a couple of harriers working the boundaries of the woods and marsh area. Very cool raptors.

The Northern Harrier is distinctive from a long distance away: a slim, long-tailed hawk gliding low over a marsh or grassland, holding its wings in a V-shape and sporting a white patch at the base of its tail. Up close it has an owlish face that helps it hear mice and voles beneath the vegetation.

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Also soaring around up in the sky, a couple of Swallow-tailed Kites. This one was eating a lizard while flying, nice trick.

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The lilting Swallow-tailed Kite has been called “the coolest bird on the planet.” With its deeply forked tail and bold black-and-white plumage, it is unmistakable in the summer skies above swamps of the Southeast. Flying with barely a wingbeat and maneuvering with twists of its incredible tail, it chases dragonflies or plucks frogs, lizards, snakes, and nestling birds from tree branches. After rearing its young in a treetop nest, the kite migrates to wintering grounds in South America.

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Common Gallinule keeping an eye on us.

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Sandhill Crane in someone’s backyard. Some birds are easier to spot than others.

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Limpkin stalking the pond side vegetation.

An unusual bird of southern swamps and marshes, the Limpkin reaches the northern limits of its breeding range in Florida. There, it feeds almost exclusively on apple snails, which it extracts from their shells with its long bill. Its screaming cry is unmistakable and evocative.

In all, we tallied 51 species in our 3-hour, 1.5 mile walk. David Simpson posted the checklist to eBird HERE. Very helpful photos and descriptions for us birding newbies!

Ruddy Turnstones on the jetty

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Ruddy Turnstones on rocks along the jetty in Fort Pierce on Sunday.

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These chubby little shorebirds are long distance migrants.

In North America, Ruddy Turnstones migrate to western Europe, southeast Asia, Australia, South America, and the west and east coasts of North America. Some birds travel more than 6,500 miles between breeding and nonbreeding grounds.

And…

Ruddy Turnstones breed along rocky coasts and in the tundra across the High Arctic. In North America they breed in sparsely vegetated tundra near marshes, streams, and ponds. During migration they stop along coastal rocky and sandy beaches, mudflats, and shorelines of freshwater lakes to refuel. On their wintering grounds they congregate along rocky shorelines, mudflats, deltas, and sandy beaches.

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The ruddy turnstone has a varied diet including carrion, eggs and plant material but it feeds mainly on invertebrates. Insects are particularly important in the breeding season. At other times it also takes crustaceans, molluscs and worms. It often flips over stones and other objects to get at prey items hiding underneath; this behaviour is the origin of the name “turnstone”. It usually forages in flocks.

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Like the Brown Pelican, Ruddy Turnstones also search for bits of bait and fish from the fishermen on the jetty.

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This pelican is not shy.

Two gulls on a Florida beach

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Gulls eating Doritos, South Beach Park in Fort Pierce on Hutchinson Island yesterday.

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Sitting in a beach chair on a perfect sunny warm day is a nice way to watch birds. Our New Hampshire snowbird friends were with us.

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These two gulls were together for a while.

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This is a Laughing Gull. They have solid black heads in breeding season so maybe this one is transitioning.

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Swirling over beaches with strident calls and a distinctive, crisp black head, Laughing Gulls provide sights and sounds evocative of summer on the East Coast. You’ll run across this handsome gull in large numbers at beaches, docks, and parking lots, where they wait for handouts or fill the air with their raucous calls. Laughing Gulls are summer visitors to the Northeast and year-round sights on the coasts of the Southeast and the Gulf of Mexico.

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This one is a Ring-billed Gull. I would see them a lot in New Hampshire. This one looks like a “second winter” gull with tan streaking.

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Familiar acrobats of the air, Ring-billed Gulls nimbly pluck tossed tidbits from on high. Comfortable around humans, they frequent parking lots, garbage dumps, beaches, and fields, sometimes by the hundreds. These are the gulls you’re most likely to see far away from coastal areas—in fact, most Ring-billed Gulls nest in the interior of the continent, near freshwater. A black band encircling the yellow bill helps distinguish adults from other gulls—but look closely, as some other species have black or red spots on the bill.

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Laughing Gulls and their distinctive calls remind me of summers at the Jersey Shore when I was growing up.

This is a very vocal species whose common call is a loud, descending series of laughing notes lasting 3 seconds or more.

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Ring-billed Gulls are here only in winter/ non-breeding season, whereas Laughing Gulls are year-round residents. As with humans, it’s a busy season when residents and snowbirds are in Florida at the same time.

Bird Island bird spies

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Ahoy, Bird Island!

Four of us old friends, aboard a 21-foot Hurricane deck boat nicknamed “Little Tanny” for the color of its canopy, went exploring yesterday.

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We stayed outside these signs that mark the boundary of the rookery/ bird sanctuary on an island in the Indian River Lagoon just to the east of Sewall’s Point, FL.

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Arrow points to the location of the little island full of birds.

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Roseate Spoonbills caught our attention with their bright pink wings.

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According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

The flamboyant Roseate Spoonbill looks like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book with its bright pink feathers, red eye staring out from a partly bald head, and giant spoon-shaped bill. Groups sweep their spoonbills through shallow fresh or salt waters snapping up crustaceans and fish.

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Brown Pelican and spoonbill.

  • Roseate Spoonbills get their pink coloration from the foods they eat. Crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates contain pigments called carotenoids that help turn their feathers pink.

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Bird Island is a special place… for birds with preposterous bills.

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Roseate Spoonbills nest in colonies with egrets, ibises, and herons, typically on islands or over standing water. They nest in mangroves, Brazilian pepperbush, willows, sea myrtle, and other shrubs near the water. They tend to put their nests in the shadiest part of the tree or shrub, up to 16 feet high.

They lay 1 to 5 eggs, incubate them for 22 days, and the chicks stay in the nest for 35 to 42 days. There are just a few spoonbills on Bird Island right now.

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A mild chaos of comings and goings. Wood storks are nesting in greatest numbers.

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Yesterday morning, on a walk before boating, I got lots of photos (like this one) of Wood Storks that had flown the short hop from Bird Island to Sewall’s Point to break off branches for nesting material. (I will post those photos later.)

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Wood Stork in flight.

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Wood Storks showing off their best side.

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Next: a very exciting find, spotted by Lisa, a Reddish Egret, a first for me!

A medium to large heron of shallow salt water, the Reddish Egret comes in a dark and a white form. It is a very active forager, often seen running, jumping, and spinning in its pursuit of fish.

And…

There is little information on Reddish Egret population trends or numbers, but the species appears to be declining. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 6,000-10,000 breeding birds, rates the species about a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and lists it as a Species of Moderate Concern. Reddish Egret is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action.

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John maneuvered the boat around to the northwest side of the island and we spotted a few Magnificent Frigatebirds, usually seen soaring high over the beach or ocean.

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This appears to be a nesting pair.

Males have a bright red pouch on the throat, which they inflate like a balloon to attract females. Females unlike most other seabirds look different than males with their white chest.

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The frigate bird with a white head is a juvenile.

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Frigatebirds, wood storks, cormorants… this mangrove tree has it all going on.

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  • The breeding period of the Magnificent Frigatebird is exceptionally long. Males and females incubate the eggs for around 56 days, and once hatched, chicks don’t leave the nest until they are about 167 days old. Even after they leave the nest, females continue to feed them until they are one year old.

Each pair only lays one egg.
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Not sure if this is a male or female. Maybe it is incubating an egg and the mate is away feeding.

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Magnificent Frigatebirds eat primarily flying fish, tuna, herring, and squid, which they grab from the surface of the water without getting wet. They also eat plankton, crabs, jellyfish, and other items on the surface of the water including discarded fish from fishing boats.

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The young ‘un.

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Frigatebirds soar effortlessly over the ocean rarely flapping their long, pterodactyl-like wings and using the long tail to steer. Though they are frequently seen soaring, they are masters of pursuit. They chase other birds including frigatebirds, forcing them to regurgitate their recent meal, which they scoop up before it hits the water. Their gracefulness ends as soon as they head towards land, where they awkwardly perch in low shrubs and trees. Their strong toes help them hold onto branches, posts, and boat masts, but their small feet in combination with their short legs makes it nearly impossible for them to walk on land. On land, males often flutter the balloonlike throat sac (or “gular pouch”) to cool off. Males and females also regulate their body temperature by holding up their wings up to sun themselves. To get airborne, they flap a few times and use the wind to help lift them into the air.

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Meanwhile, a few branches away, Wood Storks are cuddling.

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They almost make this Great Blue Heron look small.

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Wood Storks and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

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We watched these birds for a while then traveled south to Peck Lake and the Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge and later up the St. Lucie River to downtown Stuart. Lots of boat traffic but it was still a nice way to spend a day on the water.

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Last bird I photographed on Bird Island: an Anhinga.

 

Tea-kettle is on

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Carolina Wren perched on an old treehouse in the banyan next door. This bird was singing very loudly and I went out to see what it was.

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I was standing 20 feet away and it didn’t seem too concerned.

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This shy bird can be hard to see, but it delivers an amazing number of decibels for its size. Follow its teakettle-teakettle! and other piercing exclamations through backyard or forest, and you may be rewarded with glimpses of this bird’s rich cinnamon plumage, white eyebrow stripe, and long, upward-cocked tail.

2018 bird #50

Listen to the song on Vimeo: Teakettle Bird

Blue-headed vireo

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This is a Blue-headed Vireo, I now know.

Vireos are a hard category for relatively new birders like me. When I got home from my morning walk in Sewall’s Point with camera, I downloaded my photos, saw this one, and Google “warbler white eye ring two wing bars” then looked at the photos that came up. Looked like a Blue-headed Vireo but I thought I would get confirmation from What’s This Bird? on Facebook…

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The power of the internet.

So they are not warblers.

Audubon.org: How to Tell Vireos From Warblers, Flycatchers, and Kinglets
Before you start identifying vireos, you need to stop confusing them with other similar families of songbirds.

Florida bird #79 and 2018 bird #49.

Towhee in Savannas Preserve

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Most of the Savannas Preserve State Park looks like this, open grassland with slash pine and saw palmetto plus some wetlands. I walked there with a friend yesterday and we looked for birds.

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In a scrubby area, we heard a rustling in the bushes and a loud whistled call with a rising note. I somehow managed to focus my camera into the tangle.

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Eastern Towhee, a large New World sparrow. It’s the second one I’ve ever seen. The first was a female in May 2016 in our old New Hampshire backyard: My first towhee.

This one’s a male. Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

Males are striking: bold sooty black above and on the breast, with warm rufous sides and white on the belly. Females have the same pattern, but are rich brown where the males are black.

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Eastern Towhees are characteristic birds of forest edges, overgrown fields and woodlands, and scrubby backyards or thickets. The most important habitat qualities seem to be dense shrub cover with plenty of leaf litter for the towhees to scratch around in.

Towhees eat many foods: seeds, fruits, insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails, as well as soft leaf and flower buds in spring. They also eat seeds and fruits, including ragweeds, smartweeds, grasses, acorns, blackberries, blueberries, wheat, corn, and oats.

And from the Audubon Field Guide

Sometimes secretive but often common, this bird may be noticed first by the sound of industrious scratching in the leaf-litter under dense thickets. In the nesting season, males become bolder, singing from high perches. In some areas this bird is commonly known as “Chewink,” after the sound of its callnote. In parts of the Southeast and Florida, the towhees have white eyes.

More on the song/ call from Wikipedia

The song is a short drink your teeeeea lasting around one second, starting with a sharp call (“drink!”) and ending with a short trill “teeeeea”. The name “towhee” is onomatopoeic description of one of the towhee’s most common calls, a short two-part call rising in pitch and sometimes also called a “chewink” call.

Local doves

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Birds on a wire. I saw these Mourning Doves on a morning walk yesterday.

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A graceful, slender-tailed, small-headed dove that’s common across the continent. Mourning Doves perch on telephone wires and forage for seeds on the ground; their flight is fast and bullet straight. Their soft, drawn-out calls sound like laments. When taking off, their wings make a sharp whistling or whinnying.

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I see Mourning Doves regularly in my neighborhood, but not in large numbers. Just one or two, here and there.

Waxwings and a sapsucker

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A large flock Cedar Waxwings was in the trees across the street again yesterday. They were eating berries on the strangler fig and perching in cozy little crowds in the live oak.

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There have been lots of these pretty birds in Sewall’s Point this March.

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This woodpecker was with the waxwings.

At first I thought it was a big Downy Woodpecker (since I  just learned in my Audubon class that there are no Hairy Woodpeckers around here). Then when I looked at the photo on my laptop I briefly thought it was a rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

But Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a white wing patch that the Red-cockaded does not have.

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This is my first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!.. the bird that everyone uses to make fun of birders and bird names.

On a walk through the forest you might spot rows of shallow holes in tree bark. In the East, this is the work of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, an enterprising woodpecker that laps up the leaking sap and any trapped insects with its specialized, brush-tipped tongue.

They are migratory and will be heading north soon.

Planting shrubs can be for the birds

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A treetop Osprey, Pandion haliaetus.

Our town of Sewall’s Point is on a narrow peninsula between the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon and there are lots of these fishhawks living here.

A few more pics from yesterday morning’s bird walk.

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Blue Jay on a wire with a wind-blown punk hairdo.

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Many, many Palm Warblers are here in winter and this is one of them.

Unless you live in Canada, spring, fall, and winter are your best times to see Palm Warblers. They spend the winters in the Caribbean and in a narrow strip along the southeastern United States and occasionally along the West Coast. They’re a fairly common early migrant across much of the East, reaching New England by mid-to-late April. They start slowly heading south in late August.

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  • Though the Palm Warbler’s name might imply it is a tropical bird, it’s actually one of the northernmost breeding of all warblers (only the Blackpoll Warbler breeds farther north). They got their name from J. P. Gmelin who named them based on a specimen collected on Hispaniola, a Caribbean island with a lot of palm trees.

 

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Lots of yellow on this warbler.

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Palm Warblers primarily eat insects including beetles, flies, and caterpillars. During the winter they also eat seeds and berries such as bayberry, sea grape, and hawthorn when available.

Create a bird friendly backyard for migrating or wintering Palm Warblers by planting native plants. Learn more about birdscaping at Habitat Network.

Yesterday we planted more native shrubs in our backyard, a couple of beautyberry and a couple of cardinal firebush. Last year we planted Simpson’s stoppers, wild coffee, silver buttonwood and Bahamas maidenbush along the back fence and three dwarf firebush in one corner of our little backyard.

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Last year’s firebush is about to bloom and feed the butterflies.

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American Beautyberry, just planted. The bird-feeding berries will look like this

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2018 is the Year of the Bird and the recommended action to help birds in March is to add native plants to your backyard. Here’s how to do it where you live: Native Plants Audubon.

Also: A Yard Full of Native Plants Is a Yard Full of Well-Fed Birds

As for feeding the Osprey, whatever keeps the rivers and oceans healthy and full of fish keeps the skies full of fishhawks too. Obviously!