Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Back to Florida January 2013

I had been contemplating making a long-distance bird watching trip for a few weeks, targeting the northeast to see one of the long staying Northern Lapwings and two vagrant geese.  Once it was time to make the arrangements, I learn that the Lapwing I had been targeting disappeared and one of the geese was also missing.  I check the ABA-Rarities alert from eBird for any other cluster of rarities I might be interested in.  Southeast Florida with a La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Banaquit, and Western Spindalis within a few miles of each other.  Not to mention a few exotics to add some interest. I made my travel plans on Thursday, spent Friday with Louise, Saturday researched the area, and Sunday on a plane to Fort Lauderdale.
Monday 1/14/2013 – My priority bird for the trip was the La Sagra’s Flycatcher.  I had looked for one unsuccessfully last May at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park; unfortunately I arrived ten days after that bird was last seen.  This day I am about five miles north on Virginia Key.
I arrive about an hour later than planned to the reported location for the La Sagra’s Flycatcher along Sewage Plant Road on Virginia Key.  For two and a half hours I walk back and forth along the road and in the bush – checking out features that had been referenced in various rare bird reports concerning this individual. The first bird I hear is a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, it felt good to hear a familiar voice in an unfamiliar place.  I was birding while searching for the rare bird, enjoying some birds I don’t get to see very often and hearing unfamiliar calls from the brush. I watched an immature White Ibis forage along the road; I hear Blue Jays, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Osprey calling. I found several Northern Waterthrushes in a swampy area south of where the flycatcher was being reported.  Fun, but I feeling somewhat frustrated that the La Sagra’s Flycatcher wasn’t perched up just waiting for me to take its picture. Not a good time for the ego to popup and make things unpleasant. Realizing that I have more opportunities for this bird, I decide it is time to check on another rarity.
A female Western Spindalis has been reported from the mountain bike park on the north side of Virginia Key for several weeks (since the end of November).  This location is about three-quarters of a mile north of the flycatcher spot, however it is several miles driving.  Though I have seen this species before it has been more than twenty years [an adult male Stripe-headed Tanager (as it was once called) in 1992 in Larry Manfredi’s front yard]. I walked along the south-most bike trail, seeing very few birds in the woods, a few interesting birds on the settling ponds to the south.  I find the swale beyond which is a dense overgrown bushy area where the Spindalis has most recently been reported.  I hear and see several gnatcatchers and listen to Gray Catbirds give their namesake mewing calls.  I follow a trail/service road leading further west and encounter a loose flock of tail pumping Palm Warblers mixed with gnatcatchers and a few Myrtle Warblers. One of the Palms was of the Eastern persuasion; entirely yellow underneath with rusty streaks on the breast & flanks and a bright rusty cap.  I watched this flock for a while hoping that either the Spindalis was traveling with them or that their activity would spur the Spindalis into action.  Those hopes did not materialize and the flock drifted away to inaccessible areas.  So I drifted away, back to the car.
My next stop was planned to be Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, however the rental car sensed my strong desire to see the La Sagra’s Flycatcher and turned right onto Sewage Plant Road rather than heading straight to the highway.  I stopped again at the pre-described spot.  Now mid-day and rather warm, the bird activity was near nil.  I only spent a half an hour birding the area before moving on.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park encompasses the south end of Key Biscayne.  I spent a day here in early May last year looking for a La Sagra’s Flycatcher.  Today, the quarry for this location is a Banaquit found on January 6th by Robin Diaz.  The Banaquit had been seen within 40 yards of the beginning of the Nature Trail, I knew the trail well.  I arrive at the spot ten minutes after another birder reports seeing the Banaquit briefly.  There are several birders around and only one guy saw the bird. That’s how hard this is going to be. Birders are restricted (both by park regulations & impenetrable vegetation) to the trail and cannot venture into the brush to sneak a peek at what’s on the other side of the bushes.  I spend almost two hours staring into the bushes where the Banaquit has last been seen from various vantage points – my reward was an arboreal iguana, a beautiful green dragonfly, and a Monarch Butterfly.  Another birder had been there all day and was standing beside the guy who reported seeing it this afternoon – I temporarily forget any notion of self-pity and felt compassion for him and his patience.
I said temporarily, by the time I get back into the car and am heading through Crandon, I feel frustrated – I’m zero of three.  My ego is making me forgot how difficult it can be chasing rarities can be, particularly in unfamiliar habitats.  I am hunger, thirsty, and tired.  I thinking that had these birds shown up on “my turf”, the desert scrub or in Madera Canyon, I would have had them by now.  I’m wanting to feel sorry for myself – then I remember just a few weeks ago when it took me twelve hours over three days to find a Yellow-throated Warbler on “my turf”.  So instead of having a pity-party, I decide to go try for the flycatcher again.
I arrive back at the La Sagra’s Flycatcher spot at around 15:30, it is hot, humid, and buggy (yeah!).  After several minutes I hear the La Sagra’s calling.  It is not in the direction of the dense wood but rather in an open area with scattered trees.  I head in the direction of the calls – there’s an Eastern Phoebe. Did I screw up the calls? And just before I can think “Oh shucks!” the La Sagra’s calls again from a different direction.  I see it about 40 feet away.  Back lit, so no details except shape – small lanky looking Myiarchus with a puffed up crest and small bill.  The phoebe allowed a second look at the La Sagra’s before chasing it into the woods. The phoebe must have staked out a territory in the open/scattered tree habitat, didn’t care for the competition of another bug-eater, and chased the flycatcher back into the woods.  The flycatcher called sporadically from within the woods for the next 15-20 minutes. I only got glimpses of it moving from perch to perch making its way back towards the road.  I don’t believe it was foraging. After twenty minutes of silence and not being able to locate the bird again I figured it left the immediate area.  I had seen a La Sagra’s Flycatcher, identified by its call yet felt somewhat unsatisfied that I did not get a “good” look. I got tomorrow if I want to try for a better view and photographs.
Immature White Ibis - This lone bird was present every time I visited Sewage Plant Road

Not wanting to waste any sunlight, I went back to the Spindalis spot.  With the exception of the massing vultures, it was quieter bird-wise than on my previous visit.  As the sun is setting I determine that I have had enough for one day – off to find my hotel and some food.
Great Black-Hawk
Tuesday 1/15/2013 - Early Tuesday morning I’m back in the woods along Sewage Plant Road.  After about a half-hour of little bird activity, I begin to hear a mournful “wueeer wueeer wueeer” calls from an unseen source.  This is obviously a raptor and unlike any Osprey I have ever heard.  Once I got the source of the calls into view it was obviously a black-hawk.  I had read about a Great Black-Hawk somewhere nearby but was having trouble believing it was right in front of me.  It appeared to be aware of my presence but undisturbed, I snapped several photographs and continue to watch it until it takes off and heads to the southwest.  I quickly make notes of the characteristics I’ve observed and hope that some may be field marks.  Now I know why I was drawn back to this spot, this morning.   Feeling a little charge of energy I resume birding and after another thirty minutes I make one more pass to the spot I last heard the La Sagra’s Flycatcher yesterday.  John Mittermeier, who has just come over from seeing the Spindalis, joins me.  John first spots the La Sagra’s Flycatcher silently foraging in (and perhaps on) Brazilian Peppers.  I quickly check it out, verifying for myself that it is not a Great-crested and then begin taking photographs. While we are watching and photographing the La Sagra’s a Great-crested Flycatcher came in and both of us got two Myiarchus flycatchers in the same binocular view.  Too bad the La Sagra’s choose to chase the Great-crested before I could get the camera back up.  Now I have very satisfactory views of the La Sagra’s Flycatcher, several okay pictures, and was able to share the experience with another birder – thanks John.

La Sagra's Flycatcher
Back to the Mountain Bike Park to look for the female Western Spindalis.  As I am walking in, a small group of birders from Pennsylvania tells me that they have “just” seen the bird and tell me where I might find it.  Within a half hour I am watching the female Spindalis actively foraging on Brazilian Peppers low in the bushes while a flock of Myrtle Warblers forage (on insects) near the top of the same bushes.  Once the warblers moved on, the Spindalis became much less active and disappeared. Since my views of this bird were brief, distant, and often obscured, trying to take photographs of this bird would have been in futile. She was overall gray-brown, lighter below. The tertials & greater coverts were pale edged. There was a small white patch on base of primaries reminiscent of Black-throated Blue Warbler.  Visually it was not that spectacular however considering the fifty plus miles of open ocean this little bird crossed to reach this particular patch of bush is rather remarkable.
I head south again, to the nature trail at Bill Baggs.  I arrive at the Banaquit spot and join two other birders, one of the three from Pennsylvania and a birder who also just arrived from North Carolina.  Within ten minutes the Pennsylvania birder and myself hear the Banaquit calling.  The calls emanated from a restricted access trail that takes off of the nature trail.  The three of us are peering into the bushes from the legal side of the cable when I have a very clear albeit brief view of the Banaquit.  It appeared in a small hole in the vegetation on the other side of a significant bush.  My view lasted less than a second, yet because this bird is so strikingly plumaged that was all that took for identification. We waited for a repeat showing for an hour.  I had made an agreement with myself that I go look for the local urban birds (Spotted Oriole & parakeets) by noon.  It was difficult for me to leave at least five birders staring into the bush where I was blessed with a brief view of this little beauty.
For the rest of the day I am either driving through Miami traffic, urban/suburban birding at and around the Baptist Hospital in Kendall, or driving to “Dump Marsh”.  The experience of the whole afternoon reinforces my dislike for urban birding particularly alone and in unfamiliar places.  While driving back to the hotel, the sun has set and the car windows are up I hear lots of non-traffic noise.  I recognize the sounds as parrots or parakeets and immediately pull off into a small strip-mall.  The palm trees around this parking lot were full of Mitred Parakeets and even with the dim artificial lighting I get some pretty decent looks.  This was a nice way to end a not-so-fun afternoon.
Wednesday 1/16/2013 – I have until about 2pm to bird watch and make my way north to Fort Lauderdale to catch a flight home.  Larry Manfredi had suggested some places to try for a few of my target species.  The first being the White-winged Parakeet in a very urban setting that is within a ten-minute drive from my hotel.  With all of the traffic noise, I am amazed that I was able to hear at least one pair of some species of parakeets flying around.  After several minutes I manage to get two of them in view and determine that they are White-winged Parakeets.  Even with the poor lighting situation, their small size, green body, and contrasting white secondaries confirm the identity. 
Larry suggested I try the Miami Springs area for Spot-breasted Oriole.  This location is on the opposite side of the Miami Airport and only minutes from where I had stayed my first two nights.  I checkout the neighborhood south of the Fair Haven Nursing Home and actually feel pretty comfortable walking around here.  Several of the locals stopped and asked what birds are you looking for (rather than “what are you doing here”) and proceed telling me when and where they had seen various parrots & parakeets and the oriole.  While I was grateful to receive such information from some friendly folks, it didn’t help me in finding the Spot-breasted Oriole this day. 
Realizing that I needed to start making my way north, I check my notes for some recent sighting of the oriole in Broward County.  Over the next few hours, I make several stops that are unproductive.  Eventually I come across a colony of Monk Parakeets nesting on a radio tower behind the police station in Plantation.  I find a little park to stop the car and get out to walk a bit.  I got some really nice view of the noisy Monk Parakeets.  While walking through the park (Rae Carole Armstrong Tree Park) I see two large parakeets fly in from a nearby neighborhood that looked different than the Monks.  They alighted in a tree and gave me excellent views; green body, black face & crown, and yellow teardrop-shaped eyering. These were Nanday Parakeets.  I watched them for about a minute before they flew back from where they came; blackish primaries & secondaries and dark tails as compared to the Monk Parakeets.  Wow – I like it when the unexpected happens. 
It was too early to head to the airport and there was not enough time to checkout other oriole spots.  I find a nature center a few minutes from the airport and decide I would see what it held.  The Anne Kolb Nature Center proved to be a wonderful place to walk around and bird.  The most interesting bird encounter I had there was two immature Yellow-crowned Night Herons wading in a pool outside of the main building.
I enjoy taking such adventures on my own and by myself every now & then.  Such experiences give me the opportunity to explore within myself why I watch birds.  For a few more photographs click here

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