Sunday, April 20, 2014

Birds, Birds, Birds! Big Day at Cedar Key and Lower Suwannee

So it's been a while since I wrote about my birding activities...took a drive out to Cedar Key this morning, under cloudy skies and a light mist. The rain stopped but skies remained overcast until about 2:00, which was good because it didn't get too hot, but disappointing for photography and identification. Still, the day was productive and I managed to nab 61 species including 2 lifers.

My first stop was the shell mound and Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge. As I turned onto the road that leads to the camping area and shell mound, I found dozens of Blue Grosbeaks foraging in the grass, and numerous Barn Swallows everywhere. The shell mound itself was kind of dead at 8:00 AM, but there was a nice flock of Black Skimmers on a sandbar.

Next stop was the railroad trestle trail, where I ran into the Alachua Audubon field trip that had come over from Gainesville. In some ways it would have been nice to go with them and get positive IDs on difficult birds, but I generally prefer to bird alone or in a very small group. There were about 20 people in this caravan and that's just too much for me. At the trailhead I got a Northern Parula and Black-throated Green Warbler, and further on, a Common Ground-Dove, and then had the good fortune to spot a Bald Eagle eating a fish out on an oyster bed. I managed to get one picture before a boat came along and scared it off:

Headed over to the museum grounds next, and had the place to myself. I stumbled upon a small flock of Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks (8 males, 6 females) that I watched for a good half-hour because they're so pretty. I have a fondness for black-and-white animals in general. I wasn't able to get a really clear picture of one, but the best picture I got shows off his rosy breast very well:

Other highlights around the museum at this time included a Summer Tanager, female Black-and-white Warbler, and a Mystery Bird that I later ID'd as an Orchard Oriole -- a lifer for me! I failed to get a photo, which would have greatly helped with the ID because I didn't have my book on me and I was trying to go from memory. At the time I couldn't think of any North American bird that fit the description of what I was seeing. I later saw another one in a garden when I went back towards the railroad trestle trail in the early afternoon.

Blue Grosbeaks have taken over the Cedar Key cemetery. I probably saw well over a hundred total today, between Cedar Key and the shell mound area. The boardwalk trail around the cemetery was also a nice spot for Avocets (some in breeding plumage), Willets, and some photogenic Barn Swallows:

Male Blue Grosbeak
There was also a female Scarlet Tanager on the ground by the side of the trail. As I approached she hopped into the bushes, but it was clear she was injured or possibly just exhausted from the migration. She was holding her right wing slightly away from her body.

I then headed over into town and walked around the pier. The shoreline was surprisingly absent of birds -- no gulls or terns to be seen.  I did, however, see two dolphins and a group of at least four, possibly 5 manatees in the shallow water on the north side of the bridge on the road that I don't know the name of. (That was helpful, wasn't it?)

I didn't want to make the trip back to Gainesville without making sure I'd covered everything, so I went back to the railroad trestle trail and saw a pair of Indigo Buntings and Summer Tanagers, as well as the other Orchard Orioles. I was really happy about the Indigo Buntings because every time I saw a blue bird earlier in the day, it always turned out to be a Blue Grosbeak. I realized Indigos are a much brighter blue, which will help me in future IDs. (I know they're also smaller than Grosbeaks, but you can't always tell size when they flit into the bushes.) I then went back to the museum grounds, where nothing appeared to be happening, so I decided to leave for lunch. But as I was driving away, I happened to look over at a tree and I saw a long tail with some distinctive white spots.

Cuckoo! Yellow-billed Cuckoo! I love these birds. Every time I've seen one, it's been by random chance: I just happened to be looking in the right place without expecting to see anything at all. At this point the Audubon field trip group showed up, so I pointed out the cuckoo to them and stuck around to do some further birding on the trails that go around the museum. The best photographic highlight for me was a male Scarlet Tanager who unfortunately was injured or exhausted from migration, but made for a good subject by not moving around too much.

Also found an oak tree filled with a mess of warblers (that's a more fun term than "mixed flock") and in total I wound up with 61 species for the day, including two lifers. I was out from 8 AM to about 3 PM, on my own, without a scope, so I think I did pretty well, considering. I could have probably had a longer and more productive day had I packed a lunch. Here's the total for today, including Cedar Key, the Lower Suwannee, and alongside S.R. 24:

Brown Pelican                                        Double-Crested Cormorant
Great Egret                                             Great Blue Heron
Tricolor Heron                                        Snowy Egret
White Ibis                                               Black Vulture
Red-shouldered Hawk                          Bald Eagle
Osprey                                                     Wild Turkey
American Avocet                                    Willet
Black-bellied Plover                              Sanderling
Ring-Billed Gull                                     Least Tern
Forster's Tern                                         Black Skimmer
Common Ground-Dove                        Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove                        Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
Pileated Woodpecker                             Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker                              Great Crested Flycatcher
Gray Kingbird*                                       Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow                                          Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                          Veery
Gray Catbird                                           Northern Mockingbird 
American Crow                                      Red-eyed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo                                 Northern Parula
Black-throated Green Warbler            Cape May Warbler
Pine Warbler                                           Palm Warbler
Prairie Warbler                                       Black-and-white Warbler
Common Yellowthroat                          Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager                                       Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak                       Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting                                       Painted Bunting
Swamp Sparrow                                     Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle                                Red-winged Blackbird
European Starling                                 House Sparrow
Orchard Oriole*

*New species for the life list. Total so far for 2014: 112 species

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