Field trip to Hawk’s Bluff

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Early birders at Hawk’s Bluff, Savannas Preserve State Park yesterday morning just after 7 a.m. We saw 28 species in 2 hours and 22 minutes, in a one-mile walk on sandy trails. Here’s our eBird checklist.

The field trip was organized by Audubon of Martin County and led by Roy Netherton, who was knowledgeable and passionate about this special area of old sand dunes and scrubland, oak hammocks and freshwater marsh along Florida’s Atlantic Coastal Ridge.

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A Brown Thrasher made an appearance.

The theme of my better photos this day: Birds On Snags! Hawk’s Bluff has plenty of standing dead trees.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

It can be tricky to glimpse a Brown Thrasher in a tangled mass of shrubbery, and once you do you may wonder how such a boldly patterned, gangly bird could stay so hidden. Brown Thrashers wear a somewhat severe expression thanks to their heavy, slightly down-curved bill and staring yellow eyes, and they are the only thrasher species east of Texas.

This was only the second time I’ve seen a Brown Thrasher. I love the cinnamon color above and bold spots below.

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Hawk’s Bluff lived up to its name when this young Red-shouldered Hawk flew to this spot, mobbed by grackles who settled on nearby trees and kept up their noisy complaints.

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It was great to be walking with an expert birder who could tell us what we were looking at, and listening to. My usual method is take photos, ID at home and then read about the bird.

My fall resolution: more guided field trips!

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Roy said young hawks like this one take some time to learn how to hunt and they have a high mortality rate. So we all stood there feeling a bit sad for this little guy who seemed not to know what to do about the cackle of grackles calling in reinforcements.

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Red-shouldered Hawks soar over forests or perch on tree branches or utility wires. Its rising, whistled kee-rah is a distinctive sound of the forest. They hunt small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles either from perches or while flying.

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Grackle on a dead tree in morning light, with a freshwater basin marsh beyond and thunderstorms to the southwest.

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This male Boat-tailed Grackle was quite shiny with iridescence.

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To see Boat-tailed Grackles, head to the southeastern or Gulf Coast and look for long-tailed black birds around marsh edges, boat launches, and parks. They often walk around boldly on long legs with their tails cocked up, searching for food. It is also common to see Boat-tailed Grackles perched on roadside utility wires. If you still can’t find one, head to a fast food restaurant in a beach town and scout around for discarded French fries—you’re almost sure to find grackles there.

Ha ha, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Boat-tailed Grackles breed abundantly in salt and freshwater marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. They are closely associated with saltwater and are rarely found more than about 30 miles from saltwater except in the Florida peninsula, where they occur across its breadth.

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It is not breeding season, but the males were displaying anyway. Just keeping in practice?

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The harem mating system of these grackles is unique to birds in North America, though it’s shared by oropendolas of the American tropics. Individual males defend clusters of nesting females from other males. Only the high-ranked males, having established their status through displays and vigorous fights, get to mate in the colony, although DNA evidence indicates other males manage to mate with females away from the colonies.

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Grackles are pretty much the mascots of this section of Savannas Preserve, with their boldness and high visibility.

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Roy told us that the higher of two displaying males is generally the more dominant.

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Dominance is also signaled by the head up, beak in the air.

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“I’m the man.”

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Here comes an upstart.

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I believe these were Common Grackles.

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Roy and another member of our group who is a plant expert pointed out a field of native lupine. There was just one flower, but during bloom time it is a spectacular field of flowers, and right along the trail.

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The trail is mostly about this wide and we were advised to keep an eye out for coral snakes. Gopher tortoises are sometimes seen. Roy saw a bobcat and kittens along the trail once, he told us.

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Prickly pear cactus, another native. When we left the trail we were cautioned to step carefully, mostly to keep from harming delicate lichens.

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Roy told us about a pair of Bald Eagles that had been nesting for many years on the other side of the marsh. Eventually they obliged and flew into binocular range.

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We saw Mourning Doves and Common Ground-Doves on our walk. I’m pretty sure this is a Common Ground Dove. We watched and listened to three of them in a tree earlier.

A dove the size of a sparrow, the Common Ground-Dove forages in dusty open areas, sometimes overshadowed by the grass clumps it is feeding beneath. Its dusty plumage is easy to overlook until the bird springs into flight with a soft rattling of feathers and a flash of reddish-brown in the wings. These small, attractive doves are common across the southernmost parts of the U.S. from California to Florida.

That’s bird #187 for me, on my blog sidebar!

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I only got one pretty-bad photo of the flitting Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, of which there were at least four, probably more. I have seen them in winter near my home in Sewall’s Point.

A tiny, long-tailed bird of broadleaf forests and scrublands, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher makes itself known by its soft but insistent calls and its constant motion. It hops and sidles in dense outer foliage, foraging for insects and spiders. As it moves, this steely blue-gray bird conspicuously flicks its white-edged tail from side to side, scaring up insects and chasing after them.

Roy said it’s a good bird to know in the Savannas because it will often be in a mixed foraging flock and you will notice (or hear) it first, then see the other species.

Migration should be ramping up soon, with warblers and others arriving on the scene. Roy said he uses Birdcast to keep track of migration in real time.

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Exciting moment when some large terns flew over. One was a Royal Tern, a local species, but then there were three Caspian Terns, vocalizing with raspy, loud calls.

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They are only in this area in “winter” or non breeding season.

As large as a big gull, the Caspian Tern is the largest tern in the world. Its large coral red bill makes it one of the most easily identified terns throughout its worldwide range.

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As I’ve recently started to learn my terns, I’ve been keeping an eye out for Caspians. But these were high enough and just passing over that I wouldn’t have known what they were without our bird guide.

This is a new bird for me too, #188.

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We also saw old friends, like this Blue Jay.

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A small rainbow to the west.

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And we conclude this photo essay with yet another … Bird On Snag! A young Red-bellied Woodpecker with no red on its head yet.

I will be back to this location again soon. It’s just 6.5 miles from my house.

Here is the eBird Hotspot to review all birds that have been seen there: Savannas Preserve SP- Hawk’s Bluff Trail. 163 species year round, and 393 checklists (as of today).

Florida Scrub-Jays at last

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Ta da! Camera in one hand and Florida Scrub-Jay in the other.

But let me start at the beginning…

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Indrio Savannahs is a 297-acre preserve with 3 miles of trails just off Route 1 in St. Lucie County north of the city of Fort Pierce, Florida. I took a walk there a couple of mornings ago.

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A pretty 35-acre lake is right near the parking area. Fishing is allowed but catch-and-release only, said the sign.

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First bird was a Northern Mockingbird on the trail ahead of me, doing a wing display dance… maybe to flush tasty insects from their hiding places?

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I also spotted a Brown Thrasher, a new bird for me!

To find Brown Thrashers, keep your eyes and ears alert around tangled thickets, hedgerows or forest edges in central and eastern North America. Brown Thrashers are secretive, and hard to spot in their favorite spots under dense vegetation, but they can make a lot of noise as they rummage through the leaf litter.

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Thanks for popping out into the open, Brown Thrasher.

They are in the Mimidae family, along with Northern Mockingbirds and Gray Catbirds.

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Brown Thrashers spend most of their time near or on the ground, walking, running, or hopping. When disturbed at the nest, they drop to the ground and dart into dense cover. They feed by sweeping their long bills through leaf litter to uncover insects and other invertebrates. They are slow, short-distance fliers with a distinctive jerky, fluttering flight style.

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Next along the trail, the bird I was looking for!

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A Florida Scrub-Jay (juveniles have brown heads) flew onto a fence post and posed.

The round-headed, blue and gray Florida Scrub-Jay is the only bird species that lives exclusively in Florida, where it occurs in patches of low-growing scrub oak in sandy soils. It perches tall with its long tail hanging down or boldly hops on the ground burying acorns.

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I’ve been keeping an eye out for Scrub-Jays and I specifically chose Indrio Savannahs because I heard and read there were some families living there.

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This social bird forms extended family groups: the young from previous years help their parents at subsequent nests until they can get a territory of their own. Extensive development and habitat fragmentation in Florida threaten this bird’s already small population, placing it on the federal endangered species list.

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Poof!

I’d guess this is a juvenile starting to molt into adult plumage.

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You can see new little pin feathers sprouting on its head.

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It flew to the grassy path and poked around.

Florida Scrub-Jays hop along the ground between shrubs looking for insects, acorns, berries, and small vertebrates such as snakes, mice, and lizards. Florida Scrub-Jays also eat peanuts provided by people. They eat small insects and berries whole, but carry larger prey in their bill to a perch where they proceed to pick it apart.

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They hold acorns in their feet, hammering them apart with their chisel-like bill. When they’ve had their fill of acorns, they hammer them into the sandy soil or stuff them into palm fronds or moss to eat later in the year. They often place a leaf or twig over the area, perhaps to help them remember where they buried it. Throughout the year, they also dig up and recache the acorns perhaps to check on the condition of the acorn or to help them remember the location. A single Florida Scrub-Jay may cache between 6,500 and 8,000 acorns each fall.

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Florida Scrub-Jays are restricted to low-growing (less than 6.5 feet tall) oak scrub and scrubby flatwoods found in sand ridges only in Florida. Within these patches of oak scrub, they frequent relatively open areas and bare sandy patches. Species within this community include myrtle oak, Archbold oak, sand live oak, Chapman oak, runner oak, rusty lyonia, Florida rosemary, and at least 18 endangered or threatened plants. When the oak scrub becomes too dense or tall as a result of fire suppression, Florida Scrub-Jays no longer use the area.

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Nearby, a Red-bellied Woodpecker flew into view.

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I came to a bridge with a sign about the jays.

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And suddenly they materialized.

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I would have been happy to get one photo of one jay.

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The Red-bellied flew onto the scene too. I’m guessing someone has fed these birds at this spot.

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Couple of juveniles with their brown heads in the front. Maybe adults in the background? Looking a little scruffy from the molt?

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This was just incredible and I wished I had someone with me to enjoy the amazing scene. But I knew I got some photos I could share later.

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Young birds stay with their parents until they can obtain a territory of their own. Until then, they help their parents feed their siblings, keep watch for predators, and defend the territory year-round. These family groups are generally composed of adults and up to 6 offspring. Within each family group one individual acts as a sentinel, looking out for predators.

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I guess they don’t consider humans predators, which maybe is unfortunate.

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They are really different looking if you are used to looking at Blue Jays.

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According to Florida Fish & Wildlife…

The Florida scrub-jay is a blue and gray bird that reaches lengths of 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) with a wing span of 13.5 inches (34.3 centimeters) (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2011).  A blue-colored necklace surrounds their neck, separating their whiter throat from their grayish breast.  Florida scrub-jays also have a gray back and underparts, along with a blue head, tail, and wings.

floridascrub-jay-map

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On a whim, I put out my hand. Almost immediately this bird flew onto my fingers and perched, looking for a handout I’ll bet!

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Sorry, no food. Do not feed the Scrub-Jays, I know that’s the rule.

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The touch of those lightweight picky little bird feet will stick with me as a special moment.

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Yeah, Florida Scrub-Jay!

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I continued my morning bird-and-camera walk along some trails and over little bridges in the preserve.

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Very quiet, overcast morning, not too hot for summer and without many bugs at all.

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A Mourning Dove perched near the trail.

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Tiny flower on the path.

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Another creature with wings.