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Get your Birding with David Simpson T-shirts now! We are taking orders for T-shirts. Check out this link (http://homepage.mac.com/deefairbanks/bwds-t-shirts/bwds-t-shirts.html)
There are a number of designs to choose from including a New York style Painted bunting, a Flamingo we can pretend is wild, and more. Just send us your size, style, quantity, and color and we will try to have them ready in time for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival (www.nbbd.com/fly)

We will have a booth at the festival, so drop by to pick up your shirt or just say Hi.  If you can't make it to the festival, give us your address and we will mail your shirt.


Snow in Florida

I didn't see this one coming.  Another short post that ended up a rambling twisting, unedited journey through my past.

Yesterday I went up to Palm Coast to see the Snow bunting at Waterfront Park.  The bird was very easy to see as Snow buntings often are in Florida.  It was a study in energy conservation and camouflage.  The color of the bird was much better suited to snowy weedy fields as opposed to the well cropped green grass next to the picnic pavilion, but the behavior was definitely conducive to avoiding the eye of predators.  It stayed very close to the ground and barely moved while feeding.  It was not at all afraid of the folks who came by, perhaps because it spends most of it's time away from people in the cold arctic, or perhaps because it's predator avoidance strategy involves keeping it's head down to avoid detection rather than trying to outrun those that would eat it.

This was not a life bird, but not merely a county bird either.  It was a Big 40 bird.  The term Big 40 is not widely used.  So far, only I use it and not very often.  The term originated after my two consecutive Florida Big Years.  In the mid 1990's I was a bit bored with birds and began to branch out into other parts of the natural world.  This was partially motivated by boredom and partially by the realization that I would be more employable in the future if I had more than just bird skills.  The latter worked out well as I was able to secure employment at Erna Nixon Hammock in West Melbourne which led to working at Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Palm Bay which led to a job with the FEDP at St. Sebastian River State Buffer Preserve (now St. Sebastian River State Park) which led to the bulk of my knowledge and experience of things natural in Florida and many other opportunities.  But I digress.  Enter the Flyway Festival (now Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival) in 1997, the year of the Canadian.  Laurilee Thompson came up with the idea of a birding festival to help bring folks to Titusville, FL and generate an interest in ecotourism in Brevard County.  She came up with the idea in August and decided to hold the festival in mid-November, a time when tourism was slow and the Chamber of Commerce endeavored to put heads in beds.  Given the short notice, it was decided that the festival would consist of a birding competition in Brevard County and there would be some nice prizes to entice birders to enter the competition.  Us veterans of the Brevard Big Day of years past figured to score some nice scopes since no one could beat the local champions.

Does it seem like this story is unfurling like a roll of Pilsbury Crescent rolls when you break the seal?  Well maybe not to you, but this story started with a simple post about a Snow bunting in Palm Coast.  It is beginning to feel like a William Faulkner sentence which starts with on subject and steps down into several nested sentences before stepping back up to finish each nested sentence.  Yeah, it's going to be one of those stories.

Enter the Canadians.  Tom and his Hinceman quietly rode into town after begin bored with beating everyone at the World Series of Birding in New Jersey.  I actually ran into them on Blackpoint Wildlife Drive one day.  I thought it was nice that some out of towners came to join us.  Our team's strategy was B.S.  Our goal was to Beat Stuckey, a strategy that worked well in the days of Brevard Big Days.  Well, it worked.  We came in with 143 species, well ahead of Stuckey's 130.  Almost as far ahead as we were behind the Canadians who tallied 160 species.  We learned a lot that day and in the years to come.  One thing we learned was to bird where the birds were, not just where we always birded.  Another significant development:  birding was interesting again.  It took a couple of years, but we eventually were able to beat a straipped down version of the Canadian team.  The knowledge and skills I learned would lead to many record breaking Big Days in Florida culminating in a new state Big Day record in April of 2009 when Andy Bankert and I recorded 185 species in one day.

So, I was talking about the Big 40.  On October 16, 1999, I became a chaser/lister again.  I had let many state birds slip by in the past years, some of which I have since seen and others that still elude me.  On that day, I headed up to Huguenot Park in Jacksonville to see the Bar-tailed godwit, then headed across the state to miss the Elegant tern at Honeymoon Island State Park for the first of 11 failed attempts.  I eventually got the bird mating with a Sandwich tern on East Beach at Fort DeSoto Park in spring of 2001.  Later in 1999, I went up to St. George Island State Park to chase another snowy bird, Florida's first documented Snowy owl.  In 2000, I hatched the idea of keeping a year list for Florida.  I was on the annual North Florida field trip in January.  I chased the Groove-billed ani at "The Refuge" in Marion County in March.  I was going on my first Dry Tortugas trip with Wes Biggs that year.  Why not keep a year list, scope out some of the major birding spots in Florida and keep a fun year list in preparation for a real shot at the record in 2001.  At the end of November, I had amassed 331 species, just 20 species short of the record.  Given my slow start, I did not really start getting serious until the ani chase in March, I had a lot of winter birds left on the table.  I hit the after-burners and ended the year with 352 species.  I kept right on going and cleaned up on winter birds in January and February of the next year and took aim at my own record.  That is a story, or series of stories, for another day.

So, after the second Big Year I had amassed a combined two year list of 380 species.  My life list for Florida had grown from 349 at the beginning of 2000 to 399 at the end of 2001.  I would soon add number 400, Allen's hummingbird, at Uncle Jack's place in Bald Point.  Or was it the Tundra swan at Springhill Water Treatment Plant in Tallahassee.  So long ago.  During 2002, I relaxed and just went out and birded with no cares of finding the next year bird, and slowly slid into the depths of Big Days.   That's yet another story.

So I was talking about a Big 40.  In Florida, 400 is a milestone for life lists.  Many people spend a lifetime trying to achieve this number.  I had 380 species in 24 months.  I had two more species when you dial back the start time to October 16, 1999, I add two more.  I wanted to see if I could get 400 species in a 40 month period, thus the Big 40 was born.  Along with the Big 40, came Big 40 birds.  These were the species which were on my Florida life list, but had not been seen since before October 16, 1999.  The Big 40 ended February 15, 2003.  I hit 400 on the evening of February 13th with Florida's second Green-tailed towhee at Honeymoon Island State Park, ironically one of the sites visited on day one.  The Green-tailed towhee was a Big 40 bird as I had also seen Florida's first Green-tailed in Lake Alfred some years before.  When the Big 40 ended, I had 413 on my Florida list.  Snow bunting was one of the species.  I have knocked off a few others.  I could not find a White-winged scoter to save my life in the Big Years.  I have seen several since then.  I finally got another Harlequin duck recently in the same spot, Sebastian Inlet, as in 1990.  Yellow rail which I saw in April of 1998, popped up a couple times recently, once at my feet and once fleeing from a line of fire at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve.  Some still remain on the list from the Before Time, before I was reborn as a birder that day on October, 1999.  Red-breasted nuthatch, a species I have seen but not heard in Florida, remains on the list.  On one of Dan Click's famous North Florida trips we were birding the youth camp area at St. George Island State Park.  A single, silent Red-breasted nuthatch beelined through the pines, passing right over our group, uncharacteristically not saying a word.  Despite several invasion years and desperate searches in the Big Years, this bird remains the only one on my list.  Golden eagle, a bird from my first North Florida trip is on the list.  That was in January of 1987 and featured the four D's: Dan, Don, Dot, and David.  The eagle was staked out at St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge.  We had several views including one where the bird sat in a tree with six immature Bald eagles.  That was a golden day in my memories as Golden-crowned kinglet and Common goldeneye were also lifers that day.  Black-legged kittiwake, an immature of which was seen in the same inlet as the Harlequin ducks, is still inexplicably on the list.  This bird is on my Indian River and Brevard County lists since the county line runs through the inlet; I am now obsessed with county listing.  I remember that day well, because my old military reject truck broke down under the bridge and I had to explain to the tow truck driver where I was.  Great cormorant was on the list.  I managed to see one of those on the same day as I got my Florida Neotropical cormorant when Wes Biggs and I decided to make it a three cormorant day and head to John U. Lloyd State Park in Fort Lauderdale to see the bird that had been there for three years.  Baird's sandpiper I saw more recently in the agricultural fields outside Everglades National Park.  On that trip, I also added Buff-breasted sandpiper to my Dade list and learned that Larry Manfredi used to be into "Muscle" cars in the good old days.  Band-rumped storm-petrel was another on the list that I have since seen many times in the waters off of Florida.  My first birds were two seen off Sebastian Inlet in Brevard County waters.  This was a very memorable Memorial Day trip as we also had my first White-tailed tropicbird circling over the boat.

So that is enough of a stroll down memory lane.  I have to get up in the morning to cheer on the wife at a 5K in the wee hours.


Over the years, my birding experience has evolved.  In my childhood I watched birds around the house while waiting to go to school, riding my bike around the neighborhood, or while swinging in the back yard.  I still remember one evening when I saw my first Barn owl, which was also my first owl.  I would swing in the back yard until I had to come in for the night.  I always had an eye toward the woods behind the house.  It was not unusual to see hawks or vultures roosting on the scattered dead pines.  One evening I saw a hawk that couldn't seem to find the right tree to spend the night.  Eventually it flew over the house and headed over to the woods behind the Brevard Museum.  It was then I realized that it was a Barn owl.  I was on the swing set when I saw a flock of Smooth-billed anis in the brush behind the house.  This was a different time when Anis were not so hard to find as today, or 100 years ago.  For a short while, I watched a pair of birds build a nest in the neighbor's Camphor Tree.  Before school, while waiting for the car pool to arrive, I would swing in the backyard with an ever watchful eye toward the bird life.  My dad had gotten a new-fangled weed-eater and used it to trim the Wild Balsam Apple that was growing on the fence.  The remaining dead vines dried up and attracted the attention of the nesting birds.  My only bird book at the time was the little Golden Guide.  It was a great introduction to birds.  I made my parents read it to me at night.  But it was a bit incomplete.  It only showed the most common birds, and then only the males.  This led me to make the same mistake that early ornitihologists made.  I saw the shiny male Boat-tailed grackle in the book.  The birds that were building the nest were buff colored with brown wings and tails.  Adding to my confusion was the fact that there were two of them building a nest.  Later I would realize that they were building their own separate nests.  The shiny male Boat-tailed grackle hanging out on the top of the Camphor tree was the daddy bird.

For the next several years, I slowly evolved.  Our family spent many a vacation camping at Florida's various state parks and campgrounds.  Mom, my little brother and I would take walks over to the woods behind the Brevard Museum.  I would merge my love of birds and numbers by keeping lists of birds and other animals seen on these trips.  This early form of listing helped to grow my interest and knowledge of birds.  It also helped to cement the memories of some of these trips.  I can still remember seeing my first Green heron, Sandhill cranes, and Eastern meadowlark while hiking around one of the camp grounds.  I don't remember what campground it was or what we had for dinner, but I can still see the family of cranes walking through the open grove of pines and the meadowlarks flushing out of the grass.

1984 marked a sharp spike in my evolution.  The new National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America had been published.  Armed with this, I was able to identify a male Merlin sitting on our fort in the woods behind the house.  When I climbed the wooden fence for a better view, I noticed two very noisy Red-shouldered hawks far back in the woods.  I went to investigate and discovered Mud Lake.  I joined the Boy Scouts that year.  Inspired by Bird Study Merit Badge and the sight of those hawks, I made my first official bird hike to Mud Lake on December 4, 1984.  I kept records of birds identified by sight and by sound.  This practice would continue on 300+ trips to Mud Lake in the next four years.  Later in December I attended my first Audubon Society meeting.  Back then it was the Indian River Audubon Society.  Today it is known as the Space Coast Audubon Society.  My dad had seen an ad in the paper for the meeting and the upcoming Christmas Bird Counts.  He took me to the meeting and signed me up for the Cocoa and Merritt Island NWR CBC's.  I got 14 life birds on each of those counts,  I found out that there were other people that were interested in birds, and I found out that many of those strange and exotic birds in my bird book were right here in my home county.  I quickly got to know the all-star birders in Brevard County while attending meetings and the various filed trips led by the society.  Only one more 14 life bird day was in store when I attended my first North Brevard Hotspots tour with Doug Stuckey the following February.  That was also my first 100 species day and my first escaped parrot, a Yellow-headed Amazon in the Australian Pines north of Haulover Canal at Merritt Island NWR.  I used my trusty National Geographic Field Guide to ID the parrot.

In 1988, I got my driver license.  I no longer needed to get a ride to go beyond Mud Lake and my back yard.  I spent most of my time birding around Port Canaveral and Merritt Island NWR.  After a few years, I was actually getting a bit bored with birding.  I had learned most of what I could about birds, or so I thought.  I began a sojourn into things non-bird.  In 1992 I began volunteering and then working at Orlando Wetlands Park.  I was around people who were into plants, butterflies, snakes, and all things natural.  I decided to immerse myself in the natural world beyond birds.  Plants were of particular interest to me since they did not move and were much easier to stake out for field trips.  Plants and herps replaced birds as my top interest.  I spent some time exploring butterflies, dragonflies, clouds, and anything else for which I could find a guide.  This expanded field of interest and knowledge served me well while working at Erna Nixon County Park, and Turkey Creek Sanctuary.  My expertise and reputation in multiple fields helped land the job at St. Sebastian River State Buffer Preserve, later St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, in 1995.  I worked there for 12+ years before moving to Fort Pierce Inlet State Park for a little over a year and ending (or postponing?) my career with DEP in January 2009.

Enter the Flyway Festival.  Today you know it as the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  It started as a small birding competition in mid-November of 1997.  I was among the local all-stars that looked to take an easy win.  The dark horse team that we would come to know as "The Canadians" quietly entered town.  We were not particularly worried about these outsiders.  Our strategy was to beat Stuckey, a winning strategy on more than one occasion during the Brevard Big Days of the late 1980's.  We set out to bird all the places we locals knew, and The Canadians went out and birded where all the birds were.  Our B.S. strategy worked well as we were able to beat Stuckey, but we were a distant number two, behind The Canadiens.  Our eyes had been opened.  Over the next couple years, were able to refocus and eventually beat The Canadians.  I still have the scope we won that year.  It was that year, 1999, that the pendulum crossed back to birds.  October 16, 1999 is the day I was the date of my rebirth as a birder.  I went on a long chase that day.  There was a Bar-tailed godwit and Long-billed curlew at Hugenot Park in Jacksonville.  The godwit was a life bird, and the curlew was a state bird.  I got both and headed down to Honeymoon Island SP to chase Elegant Ed's Elegant tern that had been around for a week or so.  I dipped on the tern on this second of 11 unsuccessful trips.   I finally got it on April 29, 2000, during my first Big Year.

October 16, 1999 marked the beginning of what I called the Big 40.  In the year 2000, I decided to do a Big Year.  I was heading to the Dry Tortugas for the first time.  I had several other new trips set up for that year.  I had never done a year list before, so I figured I'd do a practice Big Year and then do a real one in 2001.  I ended up beating the record that year with 352 species.  In 2001, I broke my record with a Dark-eyed junco on 31 October behind the restrooms at St. Mark's NWR.  Eventually I would get 365 species before Thanksgiving and nothing more the rest of the year.  Andy Bankert beat my Big Year record in late 2007, but I still hold the Big 11 Month Record for Florida.  The combined list over the two Big Years was 380 species.  Add to that the Bar-tailed godwit and Snowy Owl that I saw in late 1999, and I had 382 species since my rebirth.  My total Florida list at the end of 2001 was 399.  This left only 17 species of birds seen in Florida since my rebirth.  I thought of another way to meld my love of birds and numbers.  Why not try to get to 400 species in a 40 month span?  Thus the Big 40 was born and the other 17 species became known as Big 40 Birds.  Some examples of Big 40 birds are Golden eagle which I had seen on my first north Florida field trip in January 1987, Red-breasted nuthatch and Bewick's wren seen on another trip on the same day at the same place, and Harlequin duck, seen at Sebastian Inlet in 1990.  Seeing Big 40 birds would not help my state list, but would help propel me toward the Big 40.  On February 13th, 2002, just three days shy of the end of the 40 months, I heard a scratching under the brush north of the parking lot at Honeymoon Island State Park.  I peeked through the brush and saw Florida's second Green-tailed towhee, a Big 40 bird and species #400 in 40 months.  This bird was originally found by Eric Haney and had been present for about a week and seen my many.  It was late afternoon when I saw it and I was considering the possibility of staying overnight and continuing the search first thing in the morning.  What a relief that was.  I had seen Florida's first Green-tailed towhee in Lake Alfred some years ago.  Next week, I will go and look for number three at Fort Pickens.

2002 was another transitional year.  I was TIRED after two solid years of Big Year birding.  I went to Costa Rica that spring.  I got 209 new birds, some of which can be found in the western U.S.  I went to California for my brother's wedding and was able to see a few new birds in between family activities.  I wandered around the bird world until I stumbled across Big Days.  I took an incredibly amateurish shot at the July record for Florida that year.  In December, I stumbled into the record after racking up 120 species by early afternoon at St. Mark's NWR.  I got through Tallahassee without even seeing a House sparrow and ended the day at Tall Timbers Research Station with a new record.  The stage was set.  I decided to follow a similar pattern to the Big Years.  I would do a "practice" run the first year, setting out to beat all of Florida's monthly records, then beat all of my records in 2004.  In 2003, I managed, with some help, to beat 11 of the 12 monthly records.  in 2004, I was able to beat 10 of my records.  I failed to beat April and did not even try for the mega record Scott Bordereaux and I set in October 2003.  After that, Andy Bankert and I played around at beating and improving some of the monthly records.  It was not until last year, 2009, that we finally combined to beat the April record and set a new state record of 185 species.

2005 was another year of transition.  There were residual Big Days as Andy Bankert and I targeted specific months where we thought the records were weak.  I tried to convince myself that I didn't know what was coming; the 800 pound gorilla patiently sat and stared.  I think I managed to get through to 2006 before I admitted to myself that I was a County Lister.  Gator Bob Carroll played no insignificant role in this transition.  He had taken over the duties of Florida County Listing's Head Master.  His current web site is http://www.floridacountylisting.com

County listing is a goal setter's dream.  100 in every county.  125 in every county.  100 birds seen in every county.  10,000 total ticks.  12,000 total ticks.  12,500 total ticks.  Average county list of 200.  Some of these I have achieved.  Most of them I will achieve.  At any rate, I think I have found an obsession that can last a good long time.  I should probably also mention that I got married after the second year of Big Days and that is an obsession that will probably outlast even County Listing.

So that brings us to 31 Dec 09.  I was 19 shy of my goal of 12,000 total county ticks.  I had failed to come up with a Plan A the night before.  Coastal Jefferson County was the easy way out.  The Jefferson County has avery narrow and inaccessible coast line.  I haven't been there yet, so I could get plenty of common gulf coast birds like Brown Pelican, Clapper rail, Marsh wren, lots of shorebirds and ducks, etc.  A very bad visit would yield at least 25 new ticks.  A very good visit would push 50 ticks.  The forecast called for rain all morning, not clearing until afternoon.  I didn't have a boat, so I faced a 13+ mile round trip hike from St. Mark's NWR in Wakulla County.  Another potentially viable option was the sparrow fields around Goose Pasture in Jefferson.  The area extends into Taylor County where I also need lots of things like Song, White-throated and Grasshopper sparrows, Black and white warbler, Cooper's hawk, and others.  In the fall of 2007 this area was prime for sparrows.  That was then.  The uplands in this area are managed for timber production.  When areas are clear cut, there is a period of a couple years where the weedy fields are great in winter for sparrows.  In the spring and summer they can are good for breeding buntings, chats, and sometimes a few sparrow species.  The problem with these areas is that the pines grow so fast that they are often no good for sparrows after a couple years.  I had not been back to the area since fall 2007.  I was hesitant to take the chance of getting down there and finding all the fields grown up to young pines.  I had a third option.  Gadsden was still missing a lot of easy ticks.  Joe Budd WMA promised American woodcock and possibly Killdeer which I had somehow missed so far.  I was still missing meadowlark, snipe, harrier, white pelican, and plenty of other seemingly easy ticks.  Still, I had all three options in play as I headed east on SR 20.  The way to all three options was the same to a point.  After driving through rain for over an hour, I pretty much ruled out heading to coastal Jefferson.  The timing was not good to get to Goose Pasture by dawn.  Besides, if the rain kept up, I could still get there and get some sparrows and such after hitting Joe Budd.  So, when I arrived at SR 267 north, I headed up to Joe Budd to work on Gadsden County.

It was still dark when I arrived.  The rain had let up some, but intermittent showers still wandered about.  Joe Budd WMA is a fantastic birding spot.  There is a mix of hardwood swamps, pine lands, and weedy fields that are managed for dove hunting.  I have been there in the winter and fall on a couple of occasions.  This is good for my Gadsden list, but bad for The Quest.  I still had not been there to see the breeding woodcocks and I was still missing things like harrier, meadowlark, and Killdeer, so I figured to get some ticks.  I heard five woodcocks at various points along Office Road.  Screech owl and Great-horned owl were still missing in Gadsden.  Screech owls are pretty difficult for me in the panhandle.  I had been missing them all over on this trip.  Joe Budd would not be an exception.  The habitat here is better for Barred owl with all the low lying swamps, but I hoped the open fields and scattered pine stands would host a Great horned.  They might, but I was not able to detect any.  I hoped for Whip-poor-will as well, but they were not to be.  One out of four ticks in the dark was not a good start.  Surely the daylight would yield more success.

Daylight brought promises of harriers, meadowlarks, Killdeer, snipe.  Broken promises except in the case of Killdeer.  At least that was a new All-County bird.  I think that made 48 species that had been seen in each and every county.  I got a bonus Sharp-shinned hawk to help ease the frustration of missing harrier, etc.  The course of the day spread out like a tree in front of me.  I could still hit coastal Jefferson, once the rain cleared out.  I could spend more time in Gadsden where I would eventually get the other field birds.  I could also pick up some of the wet birds I was missing such as White pelican, White ibis, and Snowy egret.  Goose Pasture seemed a good option.  If the clouds stayed around, I could get some productive sparrow time.  Best case scenario in Gadsden, I would probably get around 10 ticks, leaving me in need of nine more.  I could get that in Jefferson/Taylor later in the day.  What could I get it in Jackson, northern Jefferson, and Madison?  I kept going back and forth.  I decided to head on to coastal Jefferson.

On the way back around Lake Talquin, I decided to check my favorite spot again.  I had only scored three ticks out of 19, and could really use a boost.  If I could knock out such things as White ibis, Snowy egret and a bonus or two, I could get enough stuff out of Jefferson and Taylor to get 19 on the day.  Once again, I did not get any ibis or new egrets.  White pelican was new for Gadsden as was a bonus Herring gull.  Five ticks in Gadsden was not good, but it was better than nothing.  I briefly entertained the idea of heading back north and doing Jackson and Gadsden.  I could get about five species at dusk in Jackson and I could get a few others in Gadsden over the course of the day.  I decided to stick with the more southerly route.  I wanted to get to the Goose Pasture area before it got too late.  On the way back south on SR 267, I stopped where Hammock Creek crosses.  The habitat looked good for rails, snipe, and maybe even egrets and ibis.  Someday maybe I'll get them here.  This was not the day.  I heard the call of Talquin Dam and I answered as I headed east on SR 20. Snowy Egret and Rock Dove once again failed to make an appearance.  I added nothing at all and entered the desert of Leon still 14 ticks short.  The coast of Jefferson called to me.  The weather showed promise of breaking.  I could do it, but I would be faced with a pretty long drive home, late in the day.  Ironically, the 13 mile hike to the coast would actually be the easy way out.  Hardly a test of my skills as a county lister and Big Day birder.  It would be more of a test of endurance and orienteering.  I ignored the call and faced the greater challenge of filling the gap in multiple counties.

As I passed the turn off for St. Mark's NWR, I said good bye to Jefferson's coast and headed on to Goose Pasture, one of my favorite spots in Florida.  There is no pasture at Goose Pasture, nor are there any geese.  There is a campground along the Wacissa River.  The campground is dominated by hardwoods associated with the spring-fed river.  The river itself is fairly wide and filled with stands of emergent and submerged vegetation.  Cypress and hardwood swamps dominate the far shore.  Limpkin can be found here at times.  Grebes, coots, moorhens and the like are here all the time.  The pine plantations and hardwood-dominated streams to the east hold the promise of many ticks, if the weather would allow.

To get to Goose Pasture, you must first head east into Taylor County, then up Powell Hammock Road from US 98, and back west on Goose Pasture Road.  This takes you past some rock quarries and hammocks as well as pine plantations in various stages of growth.  It was at some of these rock quarries on Powell Hammock Road that I made my first stop.  The open water held only coots.  The skies were clearing and the winds were on the increase.  This did not bode well for sparrows.  I did manage to find a Song sparrow, the first of many, for Taylor County.  A very noisy Golden-crowned kinglet was among a flock of songbirds.  This too was a new county bird.  Not a bad start.  Taylor would hold the key to cracking 12,000.  There were some easy sparrows as well as Black and white warbler, Cooper's hawk, and other seemingly easy stuff.  Jefferson still had some misses, but Taylor would be the most important county.  The question for me was whether I could get these things in the middle of the day.  I could stay until dark and pick up a few nocturnal birds.  I needed screech owl and woodcock for both counties.  I needed night-herons for Jefferson and Whip-poor-will for both.  Surely I could get 4-6 ticks at dusk.  I would have time to head across the state to Flagler before midnight.  There I still needed screech owl and Barred owl.  If I could get to within six before dusk, I could get the rest easily.  At this point I was 12 away, so I just needed six more in daylight to make it happen.

The remainder of Powell Hammock Road failed to yield any new ticks.  There were some marginal sparrow fields that may be worth heading back to later in the day, if I decided to stay until dark.  Many plans were in play in my head.  I could head up to Madison and maybe Baker and Columbia Counties.  I could head south through Taylor to Dixie and hit some similar habitats to the Goose Pasture area and work into Dixie County.  I was pretty solid on winter birds in Dixie.  Ditto for Madison.  Baker has always been a pain for me and I was not too willing to risk it.  I was fighting the old familiar urge from so many Big Days before.  I was trying to bird in the future.  I always seem to have one foot in the future.  Fortunately, I have lots of experience with this and I have learned to manage the urge and stay in the present.

So, in the spirit of keeping in the present, I will get back to Goose Pasture.  I headed across Goose Pasture Road, still in Taylor County.  the fields were not much more promising, although there seemed to be some areas where I could snag Grasshopper sparrow.  The land was divided between two different hunt clubs and a public Wildlife Management Area.  Hunters were prevalent, so hiking out in the public areas was not a likely option.  Birding the road sides should produce some new ticks.  I stopped at a tangle of brush near a culvert and finally found a Black and white warbler for Taylor.  Taylor is probably the easiest county to get this species, yet I have managed to miss them up to this point.  It is probable that I got one in the past, but my lack of note-taking during the Big Years and my tendency to skip certain counties in my pursuit of Big Day and Big Year birds, led to the exclusion of Black and white warbler from my Taylor list.  Now, that situation was remedied.

My last stop in Taylor was at the Aucilla River which marked the boundary between Taylor and Jefferson.  There is no sign indicating that this is the county line or even that it is the Aucilla River.  There is not even a river to indicate it is a river.  Perhaps this strand of hardwoods is now an oxbow of the river, or maybe it is one of these crazy rivers that runs underground for a time as is seen further north in the state.  The only way I was able to figure out that this was the county line was by checking the roads on the Gazeteer and comparing to the roads on the ground.  At any rate, this was where I hoped to add White-throated sparrow to Taylor and maybe later, screech owl and Whip-poor-will to both counties.  I could not make a sparrow appear at this time.

I crossed into Jefferson County on Goose Pasture Road and found some more promising sparrow fields.  There were a few low, wet fields that could hold Henslow's and LeConte's sparrows as well as Sedge wren.  Surely woodcock would show at dusk.  I did not pick up any new ones for Jefferson.  Lunch was calling and I wanted to head to the campground and scan the water while I ate.

I was amazed when I got to Goose Pasture and found it completely empty.  This is a popular camping spot and on New Year's Eve, I expected it to be packed.  I set up near the water's edge, ate lunch, and scanned the waters for new ticks.  Coots, grebes, moorhens, and an Anhinga were in evidence.  Anhinga would have been new in Taylor, but not here in Jefferson.  A lone female Bufflehead was new for Jefferson County.

I plodded along on the road making several unproductive stops.  I tromped one of the wet fields in Jefferson looking for Sedge wrens, and new sparrows for Jefferson.  The habitat is great, but the birds are very uncooperative.  The wind and the time of day were taking their toll on the songbirding.  Frustration was mounting, but I still felt confident in my goal.

Plan B is always in play when running a Big Day.  Technically this was not a Big Day, but it sure felt like it.  One of the Plans B in my head was to head down to the coast of Taylor and see if I could add a few wet birds, then come back to the Goose Pasture area during a better time for sparrows, then end up with a big chunk of ticks at dusk. I could get 4-5 ticks along the coast.  I needed such things as Anhinga, Green heron, several ducks, rails, and snipe.  Cooper's hawk is always a good road bird that was still missing from Taylor.  Surely, spending a few hours near the coast would be better than banging my head against the wall in these fields.  If I could get enough stuff out there, I could keep heading east and get back home even earlier.  I was birding in the future again, but that can be good in measured amounts.  I decided to check out Ecofina State Park first.  I couldn't help but take one more stab at the fields along Powell Hammock Road on the way out.  It paid off with a White-throated sparrow.  I would get two more on the way out to Ecofina State Park.  The boat ramp at the end of the road at Ecofina State Park was unproductive.  The wind was really beginning to pick up and there was not much in the way of habitat.  I spied a pond at one of the trail heads along CR 14 on the way south from US 98.  It was perfect for Anhinga and Green heron.  At least I thought so, the birds disagreed.

I had not been to Hickory Mound WMA for many years.  I remembered there were impoundments that held the promise of ducks.  There were marshes and open bay.  I could really clean up here if the wind did not hurt me too much.  There should at least be a few ducks.  The road to Hickory Mound was as long and bumpy as I remembered.  The land along the road is leased by private hunt clubs.  There were many accessible fields that promised of snipe and perhaps a few shorebirds.  I plodded on in hopes of getting more stuff at the end of the road.  When I finally arrived at the WMA, I checked the map and devised a plan.  There was a lot more wooded swamp than I remembered.  It would be fun to bird these areas in the fall migration or even in spring, but they held little promise of new ticks on this day.  Eventually, I got out to the open impoundments.  The habitat was dominated my marshes with little open water.  I tried for rails in the various ponds.  Even a Sora would be new for Taylor.  The impoundment waters were largely brackish, but the upper reaches seemed good for King rail.  My constant enemy, the wind, was conspiring against me today.  I could not even get a Sora along the 3.6 miles of dike that I drove.  I found lots of shorebirds on the low, concrete sections of the dike.  A flock of white pelicans was new for Taylor.  I could not find any new ducks or many ducks at all for that matter.  The impoundment has largely returned to the native salt marsh type vegetation that is prevalent over much of this section of Florida's coast.  This was  bit of a blow to my hopes, but I could still get there with a good showing in the fields of the Goose Pasture area.

I was pressed for time as I headed out, so decided to take a calculated risk and not hit the fields along the road.  I would not have been quite so pressed for time if were not for a little quirk in my planning.  I was running dangerously low on gas.  Could I get back to Goose Pasture and bird around and get back to a gas station without getting stranded?  How far east do I have to go to get gas before doubling back for Goose Pasture?  Do I have enough time?  Why didn't I just get gas in Wakulla when I stopped for snacks?  Well I knew of a new gas station west of Perry, so I headed east on US 98 for gas.  I got there and decided $20.00 would get me through to darkness.

I got back to the vicinity of Goose Pasture and began a frantic series of stops along the roads and at Goose Pasture.  I was down by eight, as far as I knew.  My best case scenario at dusk was six, which would get me close enough to make the Flagler run by midnight.  I wanted to get a few insurance ticks.  I spied a flock of meadowlarks along Goose Pasture Road in Taylor County.  Which county was missing meadowlark?  Whew, it was Taylor!   I pried a Sedge wren out of a field in Jefferson.  Now I was down to six.  I should at least get four at dusk.  The sparrow habitat was not good in Taylor, but it seemed like I should get at least something.  I was still missing Grasshopper, Vesper, and Field sparrows.  Grasshopper should at least pop up.  But that was not meant to be.  Still, I figured I could get the minimum of four at dusk.  Nothing is guaranteed, as 60+ Big Days have taught me, but I was not too worried.  Dusk was approaching and I went into the final approach.  I could not get a screech owl to call at the Aucilla River for anything.  I got woodcock in Jefferson, but could not pick one out in Taylor.  I went down to Goose Pasture, which was still empty, and dipped on night-herons.  Either would be new in Jefferson.  I did get Whip-poor-will, but dipped on screech owl again.  So, I got two out of a possible six.  Ouch!  That left me short by six.  I still desperately tried for screech owl at the Aucilla River.  No dice.  This was a familiar feeling, that of exhaustion and faliure.  But what a way to fail!  I had a blast.  I was pretty tired and faced a long drive home, just like an 800 mile Big Day!

Later the next day, I went through the lists and realized that I had actually fallen short by three ticks.  I had failed to account for my two ticks in Bay County and another tick somewhere along the line.  Now, if I had been two short, that would have hurt.  I could have made the Flagler run and gotten 12,000.  I can't help but think about all those panhandle trips where I am sure I found thrushes and Blackburnian warblers in Okaloosa and so many other probable ticks that I just don't remember.  But second guessing is not my thing.

Later, on 13 Jan 10, I got Least Sandpiper in Broward County during the Everglades Birding Festival.  That was Total Tick number 12,000.


29 Dec 09

OK, I'm pretty much giving up on the series of "I said it couldn't be done."  It has been over a month since that happened and a lot of other stuff has happened in between.  I will pick out one of the more memorable days and then finish with the 31st, the last day.

29 Dec 09

The plan was to spend the night at Travis and Karen's place SW of Blountstown in Calhoun County.  I spent most of the morning in coastal Gulf County picking up a few new ticks but dipping on Virginia rail and screech owl.  I briefly slipped into Bay County, heading over to a beach spot just west of Mexico Beach at the eastern edge of Tyndall AFB.  Dividing ticks by effort, Bay was probably the most productive county of the trip.  I made one brief stop, where I got nothing.   On US 98 heading in and out of Bay, I picked up Bald Eagle and Tree Swallow.

Liberty County, oh Liberty County.  Such a great county for Henslow's sparrow, Yellow rail, Red-cockaded woodpecker.  But try to find a coot, a non-Wood duck, a shrike, a Ring-billed gull, a pigeon!  I say it can't be done.  At least I haven't done it.  I came in from the west at high noon with low hopes and riding a silver pickup truck.  County listing in the afternoon can really be a drag.  I had flirted with the idea of saving this county for the next morning.  I decided it would be better to knock it out this day so I could spend more time in other counties later.  My first stop was on Turkey Creek Road east of Bristol and west of Hosford.  Turkey Creek Road bisects a low swampy area just north of SR 20.  I hoped to get some kind of sparrow, like maybe White-crowned.  I found some very interested Swamp and White-throated sparrows, but nothing I hadn't seen before.  It was after noon and I really did not expect much, but I had to try.  My next stop was what I call the Hosford Pond.  From the intersection of SR 65 and SR 20, I head north and pull over next the sterile pond.  I suspect that they raise catfish here and keep the birds away as part of their management.  Ponds are in short supply in Liberty County and this one is a very convenient spot to pick up some of the things I am still missing like Snowy egret, grebes, Anhinga, ducks, Ring-billed gull, and Smew.  I have made many stops here and have added a few things like Purple Martin to my Liberty list, but never a water bird.  As I pulled up, I saw a single American Coot swimming away.  I was rather annoyed, thinking that would be new if it were on the other side of the Appalachicola River in Calhoun.  I did not realize until I checked the list again that it was actually new here in Liberty, not for Calhoun.  It's hard to keep track of so many counties.  So, although this five minute stop only produced, three individual birds of three species, it did at least produce one all important tick.  You gotta love a game where an old coot is an exciting bird.

One of my favorite, and perhaps most frustrating places to visit in Liberty County is the Lake Talquin Dam.  The Lake Talquin Dam holds back the waters of the Ocklockonee River to form Lake Talquin.  Lake Talquin forms the boundary between southeastern Gadsen County and Leon County.  At the dam, Liberty County picks up where Gadsden leaves off.

I just heard my FOTS Purple Martin as I sit here on the porch!

Lake Talquin hosts masses of Ring-billed gulls, Bonaparte's gulls, Forster's terns, white pelicans, Anhingas, ducks, Snowy egrets, and many other birds that seem to encounter a force field when the reach the dam and are faced with the possibility of entering Liberty County.  The dam provides the necessary substrate for Rock Pigeons to make a home.  The only other place I have found in Liberty is the SR 20 bridge over the Appalachicola River.  At this time, the entire population of Rock Pigeons in Calhoun and Liberty Counties consists of the four birds at a dairy in Calhoun, north of Blountstown on SR 69.  But anyway, the forcefield seems to have finally developed some cracks.  I parked on the west side of the river and north side of SR 20 and walked up to the bridge.  From here, I was greeted with many new birds for Liberty and even one new one for Leon.  A Forster's tern had wandered to the dark side of the dam.  Not just one, but eight Ring-billed gulls were working the churning waters that flowed over the flood gates.  At least 17 Bonaparte's gulls were wandering up and down the river.  A single White pelican was an addition to both Leon and Liberty Counties.  Finally, among the 80 cormorants, there was an Anhinga.  Another Anhinga was seen further down the river.   I birded the woods a little bit and did not find any new ticks, so I decided to head north a bit to see what I could do with my Gadsden list.

My favorite spot on Lake Talquin is Pat Thomas Park at Hopkins Landing.  The Florida Gazeteer actually has the boat ramp at the wrong place.  It is at the end of the second road leading east from SR 267 in Gadsden County.  From here you can see the dam, barely, but it is hard to pick up any Liberty County birds.  The park offers a commanding view of the lake.  I counted 525 cormorants, 10 or so Anhingas, and five Pied-billed grebes.  The Anhingas had earned a reprieve, but I could not help but feel an urge to push a grebe over the dam.  Liberty is the last county where I need Pied-billed grebe.  I still lacked some easy stuff for Gadsden, but I would not get any of them this day.

Back to Liberty County I rode.  Hi Ho Silver Pickup!  How many of you are old enough to get that reference?  Text Lone Ranger to wherever it is you kids text your questions.  I don't know, I can barely use a cell phone and Email.  Anyway, I was wandering around Liberty, killing time before ending in Appalachicola NF.  There, I hoped to get Great horned and screech owl, woodcock, and other stuff.  My notes say I stopped at a field on CR 12.  There was open, mowed grass on one side and a dense growth of pines on the other.  I stopped because I still lacked Savannah and Vesper sparrow for Liberty.  I left because that situation showed no sign of changing.  I got two birds at this five minute stop.  Both were American Kestrels.

Bristol High School sports a sports field complete with fences, open grass, and presumably grasshoppers, lizards and the like.  This is a great place to be a Loggerhead Shrike.  You wouldn't know that by looking around the many available perches.  Liberty and it's neighbor to the south, Franklin, are the last two counties left where I do not have shrike.  There is at least one reliable winter spot for shrike in Franklin, but I have yet to locate one in Liberty.  At least there was more than just kestrels at this stop.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up Savannah sparrow, so I was able to finally add that to the All-County List.  I think that was #45 or something like that.

One of the neatest sightings of the day was along Peavine Road, south of Bristol.  I was driving along when I noticed flocks of sparrows flying across the road from a field up into some trees.  I stopped along the edge of a huge fallow field with waist high weeds.  Across the road was an open grove of pines.  The trees were full of Chipping sparrows which had just flown up from the field.  I counted about 25 still in the field and then watched wave after wave of chippies head back across the road into the field.  A conservative count put the total at 350.  It is not unusual to run across flocks of 50-100 while traveling the roads of Appalachicola NF, but this was by far the biggest flock I have seen.  Also in the field were at least five Yellow Palm Warblers, several bluebirds, Killdeer, a couple of meadowlarks, a harrier, and Vesper and Grasshopper sparrows.  The Vesper was new for Liberty.  The Killdeer, meadowlarks, and harrier, would have been new for neighboring Gadsden County.

I had a little bit of daylight left and I wanted to hit the boat ramp at Estifanulga.  Don't ask me how to get there, because half the time, I can't find the right turn off.  It is a great spot for bi-county birding if you can find it.  From this point on the river, I have added Cliff and Bank swallows and Tricolored heron to Calhoun and Liberty counties.  This day I would add nothing, not even the memories of another visit.  I knew I had gone too far, so I decided to continue down CR 333 until it came back to CR 12 and head back up to FR 105 en route to Camel Pond.  That was a solid plan except for the fact that CR 333 does not go back to CR 12.  Eventually, I came to a dead end at someone's horse farm.  I decided to make the best of it and conduct another stationary count for eBird.  The farm sloped down to some cypress swamps.  The swamps were buffered by open water which was buffered by muddy shores, trodden by the hooves of horses.  This muddy edge is a habitat in short supply in Liberty.  I could see some type of shorebird in the distance.  It turned out the shorebirds were Killdeer.  There were not many other birds here, but in the ope water, I spied a Pied-billed grebe.  Yeehaw!

I had time to get back to FR 105 around sunset.  I situated myself along a creek with an unburned fringe of swamp.  Prescribed fire (along with the occasional natural fire) is an important tool in managing the open pine lands of the forest.  Without it, the swamps would migrate out from the creeks and rivers and turn the pinelands to hardwoodlands.  Is that a word?  Spellcheck doesn't think so.  Sometimes, along the twists and turns of these creeks, you get a fire shadow where moist thickets are allowed to grow, unchallenged by fire.  Here is where the woodcock waits out the day to feed by the moonlight.  Here is where I waited to add this species and hopefully a screech owl to my Liberty County list.  If I had taken the time to look at my list, I would have realized that I already had both species.  I had picked up screech owl on some back road south of SR 20 at some point in the past.  I had gotten woodcock on SR 12 NE of Bristol one evening at the end of another day of county listing.  D'oh!  So I settled in to wait, picking up Great-horned owl for the list and hearing a few other birds settle in for the night.  I eventually heard the twitter of a male woodcock's display and heard the "peent" call after he returned to earth.  I didn't find screech owl, but I did get a Whip-poor-will, which I already had for Liberty.  When I mounted Silver Pickup, I found that I was mistaken, again.  I had not had Whip-poor-will, but did have woodcock on my list.  I was kind of glad that I did not get screech owl.  As it was, my mistakes canceled each other.

After that, it was off to Travis and Karen's place where I tallied my totals, checked the weather, and formulated Plans A-Z for the final 48 hours.


27 Dec 09

For those of you who thought I dropped off the face of the earth, Im back!

It is Florida!  I keep telling myself that.  It was yet another cold CBC, the fourth of what would be seven cold CBC's out of nine.  This was the Econ River CBC where David Murray and I set out on the open waters of the St. John's River from Puzzle Lake to Lake Harney.  We get some really cool stuff in this area.  The county line between Volusia and Seminole runs down the river here so I have managed to pick up some nice bi-county birds like Crested caracara and Snow and Ross' Goose.  Having been in this area for many years, the prospects of new county ticks were pretty low, but where there is water in Florida, there are always possibilities.

David was a little late getting there, so I was able to check out the morning flight of gulls, pelicans, herons, etc. and poke around the edge of the boat launch area.  A Merlin zipping downstream and a Painted bunting in the bushes were the highlights.

The St. John's River floodplain is mostly a wide, flat plain with scattered low ponds and occasional hammocks.  Winding it's way through the middle of this plain is the main channel of the St. John's River and it's many oxbows.  The grassy plains are kept artificially open by the cattle that graze the floodplain and surrounding ranch lands.  This short grass and scattered low wet spots make a very nice winter home for shorebirds in years when the waters recede into the main channel.  Long-billed dowitcher, Dunlin, and Least sandpipers are the dominant species.  We usually see many yellowlegs of both species, snipe, and Black-bellied plovers.  Some years we see more such as Western sandpipers, Semipalmated plovers, Black-necked stilts, or others.  This year, in the cold, we were left with the usual suspects.  Gulls are incredibly abundant in the area.   Counting is a challenge since the birds insist on flying back and forth between Puzzle Lake to the south of SR 46 and Lake Harney to the north, all day long.  The vast majority of the gulls are Ring-billed and Laughing, but we usually manage to pull off a couple Bonaparte's and Herring gulls in the mix.  Somehow we have never gotten a Lesser black-backed on this count.  This year, for the first time in awhile, we did not even manage a Bonaparte's gull.  Another of our specialties, the Gull-billed tern, failed to appear.  We did get a few Forster's and Caspian terns.  American white pelicans and Sandhill cranes winter by the hundreds in this area.  The cranes are usually down by Puzzle Lake, the pelicans wander all over the place.  Numbers seemed a bit down on cranes this year.  Ducks are usually in short supply in our area.  We get several Mottled ducks and an occasional Mallard, lots of Hooded mergansers at times, but not a whole else.

Puzzle Lake is called that because it is a bit of a puzzle where exactly it starts.  All of the lakes in the St. John's River are probably best described as wide spots in the river, although some are pretty well defined.  We define the Puzzle Lake territory as the area south of an old east-west running fence line south of the Econ River.  As we twisted and turned our way into the puzzling wide spot, I spied some ducks waaay out there.  I could tell they were Aythia species (scaup or Ring-necked) but not much else.  After several more twists and turns, we got close enough to get a decent view.  Once in the scope, the identifying the birds was much easier.  Getting out of the scope would prove more difficult.  There were two males and a female.  The males lacked the black back of an adult Ring-necked duck.  None of the birds had the ring on the bill of Ring-necked duck.  One male was a bit larger than the others.  The peak of the head was set further forward, giving the forehead a steeper look.  The bill was a bit longer and more broad than the other birds.  I was able to determine that I was looking at a Greater and two Lesser scaup.  Greater was a new one for Seminole County.  Fortunately, I didn't need it for Volusia.  The birds were clearly far into Seminole County, nowhere near Volusia.  That and the Peregrine falcon would prove to be the birding highlights of the day.  We were not able to do much with Lake Harney given the wind and our Ghenoe (sp.?)

Our species count was a bit meager, primarily due to the cold and wind.  I got two new county ticks on the day.

At ca. 1400 we got off the water and I headed up to Appalachicola to meet up with my friend Alan Knothe and to finally participate in the Appalachicola CBC.  That would be another, even colder day on a boat.


Make that 201 out of 201.

I just found out that the Black-capped petrels we saw last May off Ponce Inlet were actually in Brevard County!  That means that I already have a new species for Brevard this year and I have achieved my goals of getting 20+ species, recording at least one complete eBird checklist, and adding at least one new species to my life list in each county in Florida this year.  I still may get 50+ in each county through the course of birding and 100+ in more than half the counties.  I have a couple of volunteer opportunities and a birding trip that will push me to those numbers.  Now, if I was really insane, I would try to push my Total Ticks for Florida Counties to 12,000 before the end of the year.  Only 119 ticks to go!


200 down, one to go.

I gotta warn ya.  This story unfurled like container of Pilsbury cresent rolls when you break the seal.  I think I managed to tie it all together, but I didn't take the time to proofread and edit.  I will be too busy in the next week, so it will be awhile before I clean this up.

Friday morning, I was rudely awakened by our alarm.  We have a pretty nifty little alarm device.  It has a light that slowly lights up over the course of about 30 minutes before the alarm time. This way I can slowly come out of slumber and catch the alarm before it wakes up the wife.  She usually ends up awake anyway, but at least it's not so jarring.  I usually awaken sometime around mid-brightness, but after staying up to watch the Angels beat the Yankees the night before, I was pretty well out.  At 0345, I was jolted to life in the full light and sound of our alarm.  I quickly got up, fixed a hearty breakfast, packed up a lunch, and set out to J.W.Corbett Wildiife Management Area in Palm Beach County.  There is a population of Red-cockaded woodpeckers here and at the adjacent DuPuis WMA.  This week, a record 20 birds were moved from Appalachicola National Forest to Corbett and DuPuis.

NOTE:  For those of you familiar with or not interested in Red-cockaded woodpecker life histories you can skip to the next section.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCW's) are an endangered species once common throughout the the pine woods of the southeastern U.S.  Unlike other woodpeckers, RCW's nest in live trees.  The advantage of nesting in live trees is that sap runs through the live wood.  RCW's use this sap as a defense mechanism against predators.  They drill sap wells around the cavity and completely around the trunk of the tree.  The resulting covering of sap deters their primary predator, tree-climbing snakes (primarily rat snakes), from climbing the tress.  Apparently the sap irritates the belly of the snakes causing them to arch their back and thus loose their grip on the tree.  The major disadvantage of live trees is that the wood is very hard.  This makes cavities much more difficult to excavate.  Some birds may take up to two years to create a suitable cavity.  To mitigate for the hard, live wood, RCW's select trees stricken with blackheart disease.  This fungus infects and softens the heartwood of the pine trees.  This gives the RCW's an area in which to carve out a cavity once they dig through the sap woods.  Since the fungus rarely attacks young trees, RCW's are dependent upon older trees.  In pre-Columbian times, the pine flatwoods of the southeast were dominated by old growth Long-leaf pines (South Florida slash pine took over in south Florida).  These woods were kept open and free of hardwoods by frequent lightning-induced fires.  Frequent fires remove debris such as dead leaves and pine needles from the ground.  They expose patches of soil and coat the ground with a dusting of fertilizer in the form of ash.  Hardwood trees and bushes are not able to withstand these frequent fires.  Long-leaf pines, and to some lesser extent, South Florida slash pines, have a unique life cycle that allows them to thrive.  When a lucky seed lands on an exposed patch of soil and germinates, it begins what is called the "grass" stage.  For the first several years of life, the tree looks very much like a tuft of grass.  The spray of dark green needles protect the bud which sits at the ground level.  The growth of the tree is directed downward in a long tap root.  The bud is protected from fires by the surrounding needles.  When fires sweep through, the burning needles release water, extinguishing the fire before it burns and kills the bud.  After 2-7 years, the tree has stored enough energy to move into its next stage of life.  It begins a rapid growth spurt which propels the bud up above the damaging fires.  Frequent fires ensure that the fuel levels are low.  Low fuel levels mean less intense, shorter flames.  Long leaf pines is the growth spurt stage of life are the most vulnerable.   If a fire comes through before the bud is thrust above the flame zone, the tree could die.  Once above the fires, the tree is free to grow to old age.  Long-leaf pines have structural measures that protect against fire.  There are dozens of thin, flaky layers of bark which act as a buffer to fire, keeping the living wood from reaching lethal temperatures.  The lowest branches of mature trees are very high, leaving a gap between the understory and flame zone and the canopy of the trees.  When fire is suppressed, fuel levels increase.  Open patches of sand are reduced to non-existence as pine needles, dead leaves and grasses accumulate.  Hardwoods are allowed to mature, shading out the flammable grasses that promote the fires that maintain the community.  Given enough time, the pine woods will be replaced by hardwoods.  In most areas, fire eventually returns.  The increased fuel levels and higher understory leads to much more intense fires with higher flame lengths, leading to higher mortality among pines.  In some cases, the entire canopy is consumed in the fire.

So what does this have to do with RCW's?  As modern man moved into the woods of the southeastern U.S., the old pines were cut down.  Nearly all of the large trees needed by the RCW's were removed.  Fortunately, some smaller old trees were left in some areas, especially in Florida where areas were often "high-graded."  The biggest and best trees were harvested and other trees were left behind.  This fragmented the RCW population but at least left some refugia in which they could eek out a living.  As development moved into the pine woods, roads and houses began to cut off the landscape wide fires.  Fire suppression activities by man also led to a reduction in fire frequency.  Eventually, even areas that were not converted to pine plantations, pasture, or crop land, succumbed to devastating wildfires that further removed suitable nest trees or simply converted to hardwood dominated woodlands.

Today the healthiest populations of RCW's exist in large tracts of land where timber harvests were limited and fires were relatively frequent.  Appalachicola National Forest in the panhandle of Florida hosts the largest population of RCW's.  Military reservations such as Eglin AFB in west Florida are other important reservoirs for RCW's and many other rare and endangered species.  Smaller tracts of land such as St. Sebastian River Preserve, Corbett and Dupuis WMA's, and Withlacoochee State Forest, have smaller, sometimes isolated populations.  It is these populations that benefit from a peculiar aspect of RCW biology.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are part of a minority of bird species that participate in cooperative breeding.  Florida scrub jays are one of the most famous cooperative breeders, at least in Florida.  Common moorhens are somewhat cooperative.  Moorhens, at least in Florida, produce several broods of young per year.  The young of earlier broods stick around and help raise subsequent broods throughout the summer and into the fall some years.  By the next breeding season the young are out with their own families.  Amongst Red-cockaded woodpeckers, a breeding pair will often have 1 to 4 "helpers" which participate in the raising of young.  These helpers are most often young male offspring of the breeding pair.  Females rarely stay on as helpers.  Each group of birds has a "cluster" of cavity trees in which they roost at night.  One of the cavities, often that of the breeding male, is selected at the nest cavity.  It is here that the eggs are laid and the young are raised.  After a couple of years, young males will wander off and start a new cluster site.  Young females will usually wander off to find one of these single male clusters within their first year.

A widely used and fairly successful method for recovering populations of RCW's is to move "extra" helper birds from large donor sites to supplement smaller populations that might otherwise disappear.  In some cases, like Withlacoothee State Forest, the takers become the givers.  Populations reach a level that biologists believe they can release birds without affecting its long term survivability.  The managers at Corbett and DuPuis WMA's arranged to bring 20 such extras from Appalachicola NF.  The process is very interesting.  The managers of the donor site identify clusters in which there are multiple helper birds.  The staff from the accepting site will "roost" the birds to determine which birds are entering which cavities.  Individual birds can be identified by the unique combination of color bands on their legs.  Once the targeted birds are roosted, traps are set and they are captured and prepared for travel.  The accepting site is required to prepare several cluster sites.  Artificial cavities are are inserted into suitable trees.  Sometimes these artificial cavities are inserted into existing cluster sites, sometimes entirely new clusters are created.  When the donated birds arrive, they are deposited into these artificial cavities.  A metal screen is tacked over the cavity entrance to keep the birds from flying the coop.  The next morning, the birds are released and hopefully take to their new surroundings.  There are three methods to releasing birds in a new site.  One is to bring an established breeding pair to a new site in the hopes that they will continue to breed in the new site.  This method is usually used when a donor population is too small or the land is not manageable for RCW's.  Rather than taking extra birds from a large population, birds from a doomed population are given one last chance to survive on a site where long term survival is a possibility.  Another method is to bring a female to a single male cluster.  This somewhat mimics what happens in the normal course of things.  The most common tactic is to bring a pair of helpers to a cluster and hope that they make a love connection.  Corbett was set to receive five such pairs.  Yesterday morning I came out to help them release one of the pairs.

NOTE ** And now back to our story

Corbett WMA is very wet, even in dry times.  The main method of transportation is by swamp buggy.  These monster size high rise vehicles can go just about anywhere through water up to eight feet deep.  We headed out into the darkness where I was deposited at my release site.  There were four cavity trees, two of which hosted RCW's whose last glimpse of daylight was in Appalachicola National Forest.  While it was still dark, I checked the strings attached to the metal screens and determined which side of the tree the cavities faced.  Two Whip-poor-wills called in the dark.  Catbirds, mockingbirds, and Pine warblers gradually started stirring as sunrise approached.  Right about sunrise, one of the captives began to protest his containment by tapping at the screen.  The other bird was strangely silent.  I wanted to wait until both birds were pecking before releasing them.  Usually the birds are released together in the hope that they will feel more like staying if they are not alone.  I decided to pull the screen off the silent bird's cavity and release the little troublemaker when the first bird came out.  I hadn't even gotten the screen off the cavity when the bird came out like a shot.  I ran over to the other bird and pulled off it's screen.  The birds took off in different directions, but they did not leave the area.  The anxious one called continuously, but seemed to take to his new place.  I never saw the other bird again, but it called occasionally, letting me know it was still in the area.  When my ride arrived, I think I heard the noise maker change his tone.  It seemed to indicate that he had found the other bird.  I hope so.  They have several months to get acquainted before the breeding season begins next April.  Many of the birds released in this manner eventually disappear.  Some releases lose all the birds, some may retain nearly all of them.  The hope is that eventually enough will remain to make a difference.

After heading back to the office for a rest, I set off with Mike, the biologist at Corbett, to open a couple of other cavities.  This site was located in between a couple of release sites.  Sites accepting woodpeckers are required to have some empty clusters available to act as catch sites if the donated birds bolt from their intended homes.  This particular site was one of the original RCW sites at Corbett.  The managers are taking steps to restore the habitats in these areas to help restore the RCW population.  The understory is being removed mechanically and prescribed fire is used to mimic the natural fires that occurred historically.

In the interest of saving gas, I wanted to hit Highlands County while I was already on the road.  I headed over to the beeline (SR 710) and beelined to Okeechobee.  I had the whole day ahead of me and several relatively easy ticks.  I had picked Limpkin as my most likely new species for Highlands County.  I had pegged Lake Istokpoga as the most likely spot.  I still lacked Veery and Bobolink.  If I had made it over earlier, I could have easily picked them off as nocturnal flyovers, but their time has probably passed for '09.   The plan was to head west from Okeechobee on SR 70 to CR 721 and head north.  If I could add a tick along this road, I would have the option of heading east from Basinger back toward home.  If not, could head west on US 98 and try Lake I.  While tooling along 721 I spied an interesting pond in a pasture.  This happens a lot when county listing.  There were a number of ducks and shorebirds in the pond.  I was somewhat weak on ducks and especially shorebirds in Highlands.  I lacked both dowitchers and a few others.  The most prominent ducks were Mottled ducks, but several Green-winged teal were resting on the pond as well.  Both species of yellowlegs were present as were some Least sandpipers and a flyover Pectoral sandpiper.  Behind a clump of grass, I spied three Long-billed dowitchers.  The teal and dowitcher were new, accomplishing my primary goal of adding at least one species to my Highlands County list this year.  I was getting hungry for lunch and I remembered a little park along the river from the last time I visited the area.  I was looking for Boat Ramp Road, but I remembered that the Gazeteer was labeled incorrectly.  The road is something Bluff Road.  I headed to the end of the road, parked under a tree and started munching on my homemade pizza.  There is a nice clump of oaks in this former campground and I was able to pish in some Palm warblers and gnatcatchers.  The palms came right down on the ground next to me.  They kept circling my truck almost as if they were going to land on or in it.  Eventually I saw my first Blue-headed vireo of the fall and a Black-and-white warbler.  I finished lunch and took a walk around the park and along the river.  There were many shells of freshwater mussels along the water's edge, indicating that Limpkins were present.  I hoped that I would not find one on the other side of the river in Okeechobee.  I did not.  I did not see them on the right side of the river either.  At least I have a closer spot for them.  I headed out and up Underhill Road before hitting the road for home.  Another pond caught my eye.  This pond hosted Mottled duck , Blue-winged teal, and about 20 juvenile Black-bellied whistling ducks.  A few shorebirds were present, both yellowlegs, and Least sandpipers.  More year birds for Highlands but no life birds.  I was getting tired, so I headed on back.

I feel like I should reward anyone who actually read this far.  I'm too tired to think of a reward.  If you read this, maybe you can let me know by sending a suggestion.

Homebound on Memory Lane

I have been laid up with the same virus that got me right before the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival last January.  It is running it's course as before and I should be back to 100% by Monday or late Sunday.  What ever happened to the 24 hour virus?  I have been medicating with rest and lots of fluids.  I think I am suffering from ginger ale poisoning.  The rest time has given me a chance to update my bird records and enter much of my old paper journals into my current database and ultimately into eBird.  Strolling down memory lane has been interesting.  I made over 300 trips to Mud Lake in Cocoa, FL.  The lake was in the woods behind my parents' house.  I didn't get my driver's license on my 16th birthday like most kids because I didn't need it.  I could just walk out the back door and go birding all day long in the woods around the lake.  Who need's a license?  I first discovered the area in November of 1984.  A male Merlin had perched on the fort in the woods behind the house.  I pulled out my trusty National Geographic Field Guide, then only in it's first edition, and identified yet another life bird.  When it flew off, I climbed up on the wooden fence to see where it went and I saw two Red-shouldered hawks flying around in the far distance.  I went off to explore and found the edge of the lake.  The lake proper was hidden from view by a dense growth of marsh vegetation.  There is little or no open water in the lake anymore.  The next week, I headed off with my trusty clipboard and notebook paper and without my binoculars to make my first birding trip, December 4th, 1984 if memory serves me right.  I didn't get much on that trip, but it opened the door to many more trips and adventures over the next four years.  It was a great experience to really learn a site like that.  Eventually I would find over 200 species in the "Mud Lake area" which extended from the yard out to the lake and eventually all around the west side, up to SR 524 and back east as far as SR 528.  That made for some long, long walks.  I spent many a Christmas Bird Count at the lake.  I can remember walking to high school, Cocoa High was right across the road, by way of the lake in order to take a quick sample of the spring migration.  One weekend I discovered a wayward football in the practice field of the high school and tossed it into the bushes to recover the next day.  That Monday, on the way home, I discovered that a fallout had occurred.  I rushed home, deposited the football, gabbed my binoculars and headed back to the lake to discover 12 species of warblers, Rose-breasted grosbeaks, and a whole lot of other treasures.  The football was later destroyed when I decided it would be good target practice to stand at the end of the driveway and throw it at the backboard of the basketball hoop attache to the roof.  After awhile the ball began to resemble a brown egg with laces.  I remember seeing the Broad-winged hawk along SR 524 and remarking at how small they looked compared to Red-shouldered hawks.  That was my fourth Broad-winged at the time.  I remember getting excited at the first winter record of Ovenbird.  I remember finding and describing my first Field sparrow in the weedy field at the edge of the ROTC field.  I remember walking the plank across the concrete spillway along the west side of the lake.  My dad used to drive his jeep across the same spillway when the road was clear and there were two such planks.  I remember how much smaller my world of birds was at the time and how I struggled to ID birds that are commonplace to me now.  Mud Lake was my introduction into record keeping.  I was in Boy Scouts at the time and I had picked up a Bird Study Merit Badge pamphlet.  One of the requirements was to keep records of birds identified by sound and sight in the field.  I used this method on my first birding trips, dividing the notebook paper into two columns.  Each species was recorded in the column by which it was first identified.  The sound column was nearly always in the lead unless I went out in the afternoon.  Later, I read an article in American Birds regarding note taking.  I want to say the article was written by Guy McCaskie, but I could be wrong.  It was someone from California.  This was my first real effort at keeping a bird journal.  I produced a nice hand-written report of species and numbers seen on each trip along with headings for weather, participant lists, general comments, etc.  I highlighted rare species and unusual numbers with single or double underlines depending on the degree of rarity.  I included species accounts, separate pages where more detailed information could be recorded.  It was here that I wrote up the exciting first winter record of Ovenbird for Mud Lake and my memorable Broad-winged hawk along SR 524.  I used these pages to chronicle the sightings of Pine siskins in the invasion winter of 1987-88.  The first sighting in this account was my life bird.  I documented the 200th species found in the area, Red-breasted merganser.  In all my trips, I only found one individual.  It hung out in a receding man-made pond in the back of the Cocoa Bay development from Dec 19, 1987 to February 15th, 1988.  It would take flight every time I came into view.  It flew out of sight every time.  I wondered if it would come back and every time it did, until that last sighting in February.  Mud Lake was in the path of the birds heading from the Port Canaveral to the landfill out by I-95 north of Cocoa.  Some days I would count 1000's of gulls, White ibises, Fish crows, and Cattle egrets.  I sampled the gulls, primarily Laughing and Ring-billed, and found that there was nearly always 90% Laughing and 10% Ring-billed.  I would estimate the total size of the passing flocks by counting in 5's and count the actual number of Ring-billed.  If the sample size was over 500, the ring-bills would be right there at 10%.  It was so consistent that I began just counting the gulls and splitting the numbers at the end of the day.  Every spring there would be an increasing number of Little blue herons flying west over the lake.  The number of immature birds would increase faster than adults.  The numbers peaked around mid-April and declined thereafter.  One year there was a consistent westward movement of Mottled ducks for about six weeks in late summer.  I picked up such oddities at Common loons flying overhead several times.  I even got shorebirds overhead during migration.  I think I remember getting Upland sandpiper.  Spotted sandpipers were regular as were yellowlegs and even Stilt sandpipers.  In 300+ trips you hit on some of those low percentage birds.

It was quite a trip down Memory Lane.  I should write down more while I can still remember.  I wonder how today's memories will be 22 years from now.  Today I keep notes in four letter band codes and numbers in dots, slashes, and Roman numerals.  More detailed accounts are often typed into the computer.  No doubt this is more efficient and environmentally friendly than a giant hand written account on notebook paper, but not quite as colorful.  I should end this now before I start sounding like Grampa Simpson.  I can't wait to get out there and cut a new Memory Lane.


As I get the time, I am going to start depositing my knowledge of Florida birding into blog posts about specific areas or counties that strike my fancy.  The format will be somewhat haphazard at first as I brainstorm my way through this project.  Eventually, hopefully, it will congeal into a useful guide to birding around the state with an eye toward county listing.  Given the recent Big Sit at Sebastian Inlet, my fancy is currently drifting toward that neat little birding gem only 20 miles from my house.

St. Sebastian Inlet (north side)

Tidal Pool - Along the north side of the inlet there is a man-made tidal pool.  This spot is popular for beach goers and can be completely devoid of birds during weekends and summer time.  If the tides are right, there can be a nice variety of waders, shorebirds, gulls and terns.  Wood storks, Reddish egret, Roseate spoonbill (rare), and Wilson's plover (rare fall/winter) can be found here.  Lesser black-backed gulls show up in small and unpredictable numbers primarily from October to March.  Black skimmers are often here when they are not cruising the inlet or loafing on the beach.  At night, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned night-herons can be found on the flats or on the rock jetties that border the mouth of the tidal pool.

Feild area

There is a fairly large field to the west and northwest of the tidal pool.  I road runs through and around the field.  Parking is available in the field.  There are Gopher tortoises in the field.  This is particularly good for birders because this means the field is not mowed to the ground on a regular basis.  There are a number of overgrown clumps of vegetation including several ficus tress, Florida privets, and others, particularly toward the northeast side of the field.  Park staff regularly deposits branches and cuttings in the north section of the field.  There is a large, overgrown dirt pile in the northeast side of the field.  Surrounding this pile are some of the larger ficus tress and several clumps of bushes.  From the top of the field you can see many of the major parts of the inlet.  Andy Bankert once identified over 90 species of birds from the top of this hill in less than 24 hours during the peak of migration.  60-75 species in a day during October is not unusual.  The border of the field is mostly mangroves on the north, west, and south sides.  The east side has vegetation more typical of tropical hammocks in early succession.  Exotic plant control activities in the area often result in paths or roads into the bordering vegetation.  Dead Australian pines surrounding the field offer roosting spots for hawks, flycatchers, herons, and sometimes owls.  This field is one of the more promising sites at the inlet given the relative size and coastal location.  It could harbor anything during migration, especially around cold fronts or tropical storms.


The conrete jetty can be a good spot to look for pelandgics in fall and winter or during tropical storms.  For county listers, note that the end of the jetty turns south while the county line continues straight east.  This means that when you are at the end of the jetty, you are pretty much on the Brevard/Indian River line.  Inlets like this seem to attract wayward sea waifs.  Brown noddies have been know to hang out on the jetty.  Gannets sometimes find their way into the inlet here.  Sandwich and Common terns often accumulate here, the Common tern mostly from August to November.  Black-legged kitiwake and Black-headed gull have shown up in this inlet as well.


When the beach is not overcrowded during surf competitions or with regular users, it can harbor the usual suspects for gulls and terns.

Concession and Picnic area

Between the main parking area and the beach is a picnic area with several large ficus and Sea grape trees.  When the Sea grapes are flowering (spring) or fruiting (summer/fall) they can be good for migrant warblers, tanagers, vireos, etc.  The flowering Sea grapes are particularly good for hummingbirds when they are in town as well as Cape May warblers.

North beach parking lot and bike trail

From the northernmost parking lot on the beach side you can wander north along the back side of the dunes on the bike trail.  The trail is a wide two rut road safe for walking if you take the proper precautions regarding bike riders.  The first section is dominated by trees and somewhat of a Maritime Hammock area.  There is a weedy, fenced in storage area with shrubby edges where Clay-colored sparrows, and Painted buntings are known to be found.  There is good potential for any wayward sparrow or sparrow-type bird to show here.  Kirtland's warbler could even show here given the right time and right winds.  I have had one on the south side of the inlet in Indian River County.

So that is it for now.  I will continue this brainstorm as I get the time and inspiration.  I hope to collect this information and distribute it in some form in the future.  I welcome any comments.

Big Sit 2009

I found out yesterday that the Big Sit was today.  http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/site/funbirds/bigsit/bigsit.aspx  I quickly registered and headed out this morning to try the hill at Sebastian Inlet State Park.  The north side of Sebastian Inlet State Park offers a multitude of different habitats in close proximity.  There is a tidal pool with a couple of rock jetties along the inlet.  The bridge over the inlet used to have House sparrows.  There is beach habitat, mangrove impoundments, a fairly large field with clumps of shrubs and bushes, several large dead trees and towers that serve as perches for hawks and Olive-sided flycatchers.  in the northeast part of the field, there is a fairly high, overgrown dirt pile surrounded by clumps of trees and bushes.  From here you can see at least parts of all the habitats plus a distant view of the mainland across the lagoon.  It was here that Andy Bankert saw 90+ species of birds on a Big Sit some years ago.  That day produced a massive flight of songbirds at night, 15 species of warblers, oddities like Fulvous whistling duck and Glossy ibis (rare on the barrier island) and a Painted bunting actually in the circle with Andy.

Big Sit 2009 was hampered by a stalled front in the panhandle of Florida.  There were some radar returns over this part of the state, but most of the action was bottled up to the north.  I set up about 0620, about 25 minutes before the first mockingbirds began to call.  In the dark I tallied three Bobolinks, and that was it.  In the daylight I tallied five more Bobolinks.  There were a few warblers in the field and surrounding woods.  The best of the bunch was a couple of Cape mays, not easy to find in the fall.  I got two different Peregrine falcons and two Merlins.  There were herons, egrets, pelicans, gulls, and pelicans flying up and down the lagoon and inlet making it impossible to get an accurate count.  I got a nice flight of 13 Roseate spoonbills and a Reddish egret taking advantage of the receding tide in the tidal pool.  Most of the waders were represented.  Glossy ibises are rare on the mainland as are Cattle egrets.  Green herons can be tough as well.  I did not get any of these in the three hours, 15 minutes that I spent sitting.  Thrushes, orioles, tanagers, buntings, and flycatchers were absent.  Northern rough-winged swallows were the champion swallow of the morning beating out Tree and Barn 11-10-6.  Interestingly, Andy got several Cliff swallows 10 miles north on the barrier island.  From the mound it can be difficult to see birds flying low over the dunes.

I managed to turn up 60 species and take some pictures of and from the site.  I'll see about posting them here or to Facebook.  Andy went out this afternoon and had several species that I had not seen.  He found 53 species when I last talked to him, including probably 10-15 that I did not have.  We'll compare notes and compile a total.  70-75 seems likely, maybe more.  Next year I hope to get some more people together and make an all day effort.  It would definitely help to have more sets of eyes in the morning.