Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Tale of Five CBCs

I do plan on doing some catch-up blogs from the five tours and three scouting trips I’ve conducted since the private tour in Arizona in mid-July. Yes, it’s been a very busy year for me. But before I do that here are some photos from the five CBCs I’ve done this season.

I did my first CBC in 1985, and since then I’ve missed only two years (1990 and 2011, when I was out of the country). I’ve done as many a nine in one season, which runs from December 14 to January 5 every year, and while I have my favorite circles that I’d like to do every year, I decided to do something very different this year. For the first time, I have done some CBCs east of the Arizona-New Mexico Border.

But first on December 14, I participated in my home count, the

Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count

for which I was compiler for the past five years. After last year’s count I handed the baton over to Luke Safford, and he had the job of organizing the 120 or so participants into 27 teams, and we tallied an impressive 159 species, the third highest total in 46 years. Luke assigned me to Area 4 on the central-west part of the circle, the heart of which is the Silverbell Golf Course. I was joined by 16-year-old Dorian and his mother Glenda for their third year in participating in this CBC. Dorian knows all the call notes of the area's birds and is a very accomplished bird artist as well. We had a great day in beautiful weather.

At the golf course we soon discovered a flock of about 18 Red Crossbills feeding in the non-native pine trees. This is a huge irruption year for this species in the Southwest, and though we usually miss it on this CBC, over a hundred were tallied this day. These are Type 2 (Ponderosa) Red Crossbills, confirmed with a recording of their flight call notes.

Maybe for related reasons (or maybe not), we’re also experiencing a Red-breasted Nuthatch irruption, and two were in the same pines as the crossbills. This was Dorian’s lifer.

I think this Blue-winged Teal on one of the two ponds was the only one for the CBC.

As we were leaving the golf course, Glenda made a wrong turn which fortuitously took us to a dead-end in the parking lot with a view of the driving range, which was not in use and covered with blackbirds, Killdeer, House Finches, and a Say’s Phoebe, while on a post Dorian spotted a flicker. There were only two lone Saguaros in the parking lot, but that was apparently enough for what turned out to be a handsome pair of Gilded Flickers, the only ones we found in our area.

After covering the golf course we walked a weedy lot and a grass-filled wash, counting sparrows, shrikes, and others. I just barely got a good enough photo to document this scarce dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow of the subspecies oriantha.

We were a bit puzzled by this unusual Red-tailed Hawk plumage, which we decided was an intermediate morph juvenile.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and there were plenty of these Pallid-winged Grasshoppers, Trimerotropis pallidipennis around.

In the late morning we drove through the desert-dominated residential areas towards the western edge of the circle, and at the far end of Lazy C Loop we got to within 1/2 mile of the edge. We hoped for a flyover Black Vulture (a pair or two live in the distant ridges outside the circle but could conceivably fly over the circle from time to time), but we added only a few Gambel’s Quails, Pyrrhuloxias, Cactus Wrens and other expected desert things, though in lower-than-expected numbers.

For the afternoon we returned to the Santa Cruz River wash and nearby weedy fields. A Rock Wren on a wall behind a row of houses along a wash was fun to watch. Down here in this flat habitat, it’s probably a migrant from the north; there must be some local residents in the rocky desert to the west, but they weren’t making themselves visible.

We watched this Coyote sleeping in the Santa Cruz River wash on our way back to the car.

Back to the car at the end, I had to take just one photo of a Vermilion Flycatcher, the species most emblematic of the Tucson Valley CBC. Last year’s 392 was a new all-time high for the entire CBC, though several observers thought there would be fewer tallied this year.

The next afternoon I departed for Tampa, Florida, hoping to arrive around midnight, but a mechanical delay meant that I had to spend the night near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (courtesy American Airlines) and get the first flight next next morning. I arrived in time on Saturday the 16th to bird the latter half of the

St. Petersburg Christmas Bird Count.

I joined Charlie Fisher and Bo Fethe to cover the area NW of the city generally called Seminole and Long Bayou.

One lusher neighborhood we birded was Seminole Lake Country Club, and the older oak trees had mixed flocks that included Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and many warblers, such as Palm, Yellow-rumped, Prairie, Black-and-white, Pine, and Yellow-throated.

In a weedy area I noticed a very colorful arctiine wasp-mimic moth. It was easy to identify as Syntomeida epilais, which uses Oleander (and presumably other native Apocynaceae) as a host plant.

Later we split up, and I walked the Pinellas Trail, a former railroad now bike and pedestrian path, crossing Long Bayou.

I had a small raft of Lesser Scaup and two very distant Bufflehead, the latter of which might have been the only ones on the count.

On the west side of the bayou I continued to bird through a residential area.

Here I continued to pish and imitate Eastern Screech-Owls, tallying more gnatcatchers and warblers, such as this Prairie Warbler.

I also heard five different Eastern Screech-Owls, calling from deep within palm thickets, but this pair was on a relatively open perch right next to where I was whistling. The St. Pete CBC had recently had the nation’s high count, usually competing with the Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania CBC for this honor.

The other species this CBC is known for is Nanday Parakeet, an established exotic with numbers in the 100’s.

I ended the day counting 1984 Fish Crows as they gathered around some ponds in a residential area and then departed for a distant, unknown roost.

After the countdown dinner at a Panera Bread restaurant, I spent the night at my brother Bob’s house in Clearwater just to the north, and we had a good time catching up on news; I only see him every couple of years at most. I then departed at 4:30 the next morning to meet up with Charlie Fisher and Mark McRae for the

Alafia Banks Christmas Bird Count

Charlie is the compiler for this CBC, and he wanted to start with some owling. Before long we were hearing an Eastern Screech-Owl, but Great Horned didn’t call for us. We then gathered at a McDonald’s (a typical meeting place for CBC’s, as they are open early), and Charlie sent me off to cover a nature reserve on my own for the day. I spent all morning at the Balm-Boyette Scrub Preserve, an area of sandy soils with a variety of habitats, including oak forest, pine forest, grasslands, and oak scrub, as well as combinations of and transitions between all the above. It was a wonderful contrast to yesterday’s urban birding.

At dawn large flocks of Ring-billed Gulls and (here) Caspian Terns flew over headed eastward, presumably headed to lakes in the interior of the Florida Peninsula.

I hiked nearly 4 miles on trails, also doing some bushwhacking, trying to find some of the scarcer birds that might be found here – Bachman’s Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, or some other sparrow, but I dipped on all of those. I did enjoy pishing in flocks of warblers and gnatcatchers, much like yesterday, but many, many more. One mixed flock had about 15 Pine Warblers in it, accounting for a significant percentage of my lifetime count of that species. Anotehr mixed flock had about 15 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. One mixed flock had an Ovenbird, not unusual at this latitude, but occurring only in small numbers.

I also found six Hermit Thrushes in just my area, more than the entire count’s average of five each year.

I was enthralled by the botany here and wished I had someone with me who knew his plants. I was amazed to see an epiphytic orchid here, though not in bloom. It is Encyclia tampensis, an unforgettable name given that Tampa is only a few miles away from here.

Another plant I noticed was this Sparkleberry, Vaccinium arboreum. If I had known it was a Vaccinium (related to huckleberries and blueberries) at the time, I would have tasted it, but online sources say the fruit is uninteresting.

I concentrated on birds, but did take a couple bug photos. This grasshopper is Spharagemon marmorata, not that distantly related to the one I had on the Tucson Valley CBC.

This is a net-winged beetle, Calopteron discrepans.

And the Long-tailed Skipper Urbanus dorantes, a very widespread species.

In the afternoon I birded another, smaller preserve at the southern end of the circle as well as fields and marshes near the town of Wimauma (pronounced “why mama" I later learned, my Portuguese training fooling me into thinking it would be "weema-uma"). A roadside marsh had a good assortment of shorebirds, herons, Anhingas, and ibises, as well as this lone Black-bellied Whistling-Duck.

I walked a weedy field, flushing five Grasshopper Sparrows, always a tough bird to find in winter.

One of my last birds of the day was this Chipping Sparrow, surprisingly scarce in Florida in winter. I’m used to flushing flocks of hundreds on CBCs in Arizona – Atascosa Highlands led the nation with 3071 last year!

I again spent the night at my brother’s in Clearwater, and left again at 5:00 a.m. to arrive in time Monday morning at Myakka River State Park for the

Myakka River Christmas Bird Count –

for that circle’s 55th year of participating in this 118-year-old tradition.

Compiler (and long time participant) and biologist Belinda Perry invited me to join her and biologist Chris Oliver on a hiking area to cover Lower Myakka Lake and the marshes and woods around it. We hiked nearly 11 miles this day.

It was great being with biologists who could answer my every question about the fascinating and utterly different environment. Epiphytic ferns, bromeliads, and orchids were more like many areas of the tropics, such as Jamaica, but Florida is not tropical, and the climate and geology conspire to make it its own thing. Chris got me the name of the orchid I had seen yesterday, and he even found one blooming way out of season – Encyclia tampensis.

Another unusual epiphyte here was the Shoestring Fern Vittaria lineata.

Chris also knew all the bromeliads, and all six that occur here are in the same genus. They have many common names, not clearly sandardized

Tillandsia balbisiana (Northern Needleleaf).

Tillandsia fasciculata (Giant Airplant).

Tillandsia recurvata (Small Ballmoss – though a rather different, more open form than the one in Arizona and in other drier climates).

Tillandsia setacea (Southern Needleleaf).

As with the preserve I birded yesterday, there are many very different habitats in a small area. Marshes and riversides are dominated by the invasive Pará Grass, Pistia stratiotes (in the foreground and across the river).

Dense groves of the Cabbage Palm, Sabal palmetto sometimes merged with the marsh grasses to form a type of palm savanna.

Adjacent to shady groves of palm and oak were areas of marsh that stood wet too long for those trees but were home to thickets of Carolina Ash or Pop Ash, Fraxinus caroliniana, a habitat that looked like it could also be home to a Gollum.

As in the past days, we pished and tooted in mixed flocks of warblers, gnatcatchers, vireos, and others. This Yellow-throated Warbler was the only one I photographed.

We also had several shorebirds to sift through, this group being the most varied group of species, including six species of sandpipers and two Caspian Terns.

Here, a Stilt Sandpiper shows its diagnostic white rump as it bathed by some American Avocets.

We almost overlooked this Dunlin with some Long-billed Dowitchers.

There were several Bald Eagles in our area, here an immature soaring overhead.

Common Ground-Doves were in the drier areas of palm and oak adjacent to grasslands.

In the moist woodlands I was pleased to find several species of mushrooms, which some experts at helped me put generic names to.

Ganoderma sp.

Lactifluus sp.

Pluteus sp.

A beautiful moth caterpillar bearing what looked like stinging hairs drew may attention. It was feeding on smartweed, and a simple search for “smartweed moth” led me directly to its identity, Acronicta oblinita, a noctuid also called the Smeared Dagger. The adult is extremely drab.

South of the large and very shallow Lower Myakka Lake is a very deep water hole of unknown geologic origin, and around the edge of it was a huge group of sunning American Alligators.

On our way out, I spotted this recently dead Scarlet Snake, Cemophora coccinea in a road that is used only by state park employees and contractors doing control burns.

One last flower that Belinda showed me is this Mignonette Orchid, Habenaria foribunda.

I then had four days of no CBCs during which to get caught up on emails, visit with my other brother and his family in Fort Myers, and to explore southern Florida. There were essentially no Caribbean vagrants to chase, so on Thursday I decided to go as far as Long Key and bird a couple of sites in the keys where I might get lucky to spot a vagrant such as a Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, or something even better. I had no such luck but still enjoyed my time. Long Key State Park was quite ravaged by Hurricane Irma in September, as were all of the keys, and signs were evident everywhere, from piles of trash, houses under reconstruction, houses all boarded up and ready for demolition, and the mangroves completely defoliated in some areas. On the state park's nature trail many trees were coming back, but birds were very scarce. The higher forest actually seemed quite undamaged, here a Gumbo-Limbo, Bursera simaruba.

In the mangroves, some trees were clearly making a comeback.

In the wrack were a lot of dead coral, including this stunningly purple sea plum Antillogorgia bipinnata.

Amazingly abundant were Great Pondhawks, Erythemis vesiculosa.

Also abundant were the introduced brown anoles (simply everywhere, in every habitat), so I was pleased to finally see this single native green anole, Anolis carolinensis.

On my way back north I checked a well-wooded neighborhood on Islamorada, finding this Gray Catbird with a metal band on its left leg. I sent three photos off to the Bird Banding Laboratory, hoping they could sleuth out enough of the number combination to find the likely banding location, and they replied within four days – it appears to have been banded in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, but I’m still awaiting confirmation from the bander with more details.

One last stop on Key Largo in a small residential area resulted in lots of migrants from the north:

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Prairie Warbler

White-eyed Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

And as seems to be usual here, an Eastern Screech-Owl responded to my imitation from a palm tree in a front yard, revealing this pair.

On Friday morning I started at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park near Miami, hoping to catch up with a Thick-billed Vireo that hadn’t been seen in a month and a half. No luck, but finding a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and this Summer Tanager were highlights.

This Spanish Needles, Bidens pilosa was one of the most common plants in the area.

I recognized this as a stickleaf, but didn’t realize it was a range-restricted native, Mentzelia floridana.

There don’t seem to be many insects in this part of the world, perhaps due to decades of widespread insecticide usage. So this little wasp caught my attention. It’s apparently in the the genus Campsomeris, and it looks like a good match with some Bugguide submissions for male C. trifasciata.

In the afternoon I hooked up with my friend Michael Harvey (the herpetologist-birder from Broward College, not the much younger ornithologist-birder with the same name from Louisiana State and now University of Michigan), and we drove to Flamingo at the southernmost tip of Florida in Everglades National Park. On the way we stopped to rent a kayak, and on the curb by the gas station across the street was this Agama sp., one of several species introduced from Asia and Africa and now established in southern Florida. They are apparently very difficult to distinguish.

Not long before we entered the national park, we were surprised to see Swainson's Hawks soaring over some agricultural fields. It turns out there is a small group of immatures in this area every winter, essentially a highly visible concentration of lost migrants (vagrants) who end up finding perfectly suitable wintering habitat after bumping into the southern tip of the peninsula and refusing to fly across open water (something that is simply not in the nature of any short-winged hawk). Nobody knows what happens to these birds come spring – do they make it to appropriate breeding grounds and then in subsequent seasons migrate correctly, or do they end up completely lost somewhere in eastern Canada and soon die?

We also stopped at a known birding area called Frog Pond-Lucky Hammock where we found a few Grasshopper Sparrows.

This place is also known as a roosting spot for lost kingbirds, all of which mirror exactly the Swainson’s Hawk phenomenon – several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbird had already began to congregate in the early afternoon.

We identified two species of dragonflies, including the male and female of the introduced Scarlet Skimmer, Crocothemis servilia.

And the native Roseate Skimmer, Orthemis ferruginea.

On the drive into the national park, we stopped to admire this Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina.

At Flamingo we first took a look at the American Crocodiles, Crocodylus acutus, and then for the next 3 hours kayaked into Snake Bight.

We got close to American Avocets and saw many other herons, pelicans, ducks, shorebirds, many Ospreys, a Bald Eagle, and a Peregrine Falcon, but no flamingos. I also tipped my kayak and learned to enjoy the warm water and squish of mangrove mud – I wisely had left my camera back in the car.

I departed from Michael and Brian’s at 4:30 on Saturday morning to arrive in time for some owling with Roberto Torres on the

Kendall Area Christmas Bird Count

– which essentially covers the southern half of the gigantic Miami metropolitan area. This CBC shares close company with the two circles I have been compiling for the past decade, Tucson Valley and Atascosa Highlands, in being among the top three or four circles in the country for the number of species for which it gets high counts every year. In fact, last year Atascosa was first with 16, Tucson second with 15, and Kendall Area third with 14. (For some reason, the Mad Island Marsh-Matagorda County, TX CBC only had 10, instead of its usual 20+). Kendall Area’s high counts are almost exclusively northern warblers that find this southern tip’s climate perfectly fine – American Redstart, Northern Parula, Ovenbird, etc. But they also get the occasional vagrant, such as Warbling Vireo, Hooded Warbler, and Lesser Nighthawk, which merely pad the list, as well as the introduced and established Spot-breasted Orioles. But Tucson occasionally does that too, with last year's two Bell's Vireos being the national high.

My birding partner for the day was local hotshot Roberto Torres, and for the first couple of hours we also birded with Raul Urgelles, who also knows all the birds really well. We started with an Eastern Screech-Owl, then a Lesser Nighthawk in a usual location, and then a pair of Great Horned Owls that came in to my imitation. As soon as it was light enough for other birds to be active, the owls were first harassed by a Cooper’s Hawk, then a Merlin, then a Red-shouldered Hawk, and last we heard them, well after sunrise, a Sharp-shinned Hawk was headed their direction. I took a video when the male owl flew in close.

One of the “scoops” from our area was the single Smooth-billed Ani that has been here for several weeks. This ended up being the only new species for my ABA-Area list on this trip.

Here’s a photo of Roberto and the ani barely visible on a post up to the left across the channel. That huge pile in the background is waste collected from trees and shrubs downed by Hurricane Irma.

We tallied a lot of birds in our area, including several Ovenbirds, surely totaling to a national high this year.

We picked up one Least Flycatcher in a mob of warblers and gnatcatchers, which may be the only one on this CBC.

Boat-tailed Grackle is an abundant bird throughout Florida.

I didn't know that Green Iguanas, Iguana iguana, were such common, established exotics here until this trip.

Fortunately we were upwind of the Miami-Dade Landfill all day, but the hundreds of Turkey Vultures on and over it all day attested to the stench that must be produced by it.

In the afternoon I convinced Roberto to walk a grassy field with me, maybe the largest such piece of habitat left in the circle, and surely soon to be converted to apartment buildings. In it we found three Grasshopper Sparrows and four Savannah Sparrows, the former the only ones found in the circle. Amazingly, I've photographed three Grasshopper Sparrows this week, compared the eight I've ever photographed before.

We were pretty much done with the day's birding so I looked to invertebrates for a moment. I found this Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak, Strymon istapa.

And this Banded Garden Spider, Argiope trifasciata.

For the last hour and a half of daylight, I walked a muddy marsh in my rubber boots; it is typically viewed only from the road, but most of the stuff in it isn't visible unless you flush them or can approach the far muddy patches. That's how I found another few Savannah Sparrows (and these and the ones we had earlier were the only ones on the count), about a dozen Wilson's Snipe, and these Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper.

This CBC gets the high count of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds most years, but I think our area is the one that gets the least, being all non-urban habitats. I managed to find one in the distant hedgerow of the marsh, perhaps just close enough to exotic flowers in nearby yards.

The last spot I checked was adjacent to the marsh – just another series of lakes behind houses.

In it were several Mottled Ducks.

And the only Black-necked Stilt on the entire CBC, a species that has been found once in the past 10 years here.

After five CBCs in 9 days, I drove 2 ½ hours back to North Fort Myers to enjoy time cooking, eating, drinking, playing games, and opening presents with my brother and his family.

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