Monday, January 30, 2017

Florida Scrub Jays

A target bird for anyone birder who comes to Central Florida is the Florida Scrub Jay. It is endemic to Florida, and lives only in areas of short scrubby oaks growing on sandy soil. This habitat occurs mostly as isolated pockets, surrounded by housing developments. The jays rarely wander away from their own little patch of scrub, making them very sedentary. The scrub must be kept from growing too large by periodic fires, preventing oak trees from shading out everything else. In the protected areas kept for the jays man-controlled fires keep the scrub low.
They eat mostly acorns and insects, along with spiders and snails. They will also eat berries, seeds and small reptiles, amphibians, rodents and the young of smaller birds. The scub oak provides the acorns. They will forage on the ground and in trees, usually in flocks. They will bury the acorns, coming back for them later.
Scrub Jays are known as cooperative breeders, meaning their young stay around to help raise chicks in the next year. These "helpers" assist in defending the family's territory and feeding the young. They build nests of twigs, grass and moss in a well-built thick-walled cup.
In the early 1990's, there were only about 4,000 Scrub Jays, and they were put on the endangered species list.
On one trip, the leaders pished and called for quite a while before one jay came to see what was going on. Dick and I went to Cruikshank Sanctuary which was established with Brevard County in 1981. A family of 8-10 jays were delighted to see us, pecking on our heads for handouts, which we did not give them. It was great fun!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Brevard County Birding

Saturday's field trip entitled itself "Brevard County Hotspots," and honestly, I never had a clue of where we were or how we got there. We were on the bus at 0-dark hundred, and stopped at a marsh often used by hunters and fishermen, from the piles of shot gun shells on the ground. I wondered how they ever found their way out after going into the marsh to hunt. The county itself is about 72 miles long from north to south. David LaPuma was one of our leaders again,  so I learned lots of good stuff, while shivering in the cold morning air.
As the sun rose, we watched the various species lift from their roosting spots in the marsh to head to the ocean for breakfast. Learning more of their profiles and flight patterns helped, since it was too dark for details in the beginning.
For example, there is a Little Blue Heron that is dark blue. But in its first year it is white. Look for a bi-color bill and greenish legs to distinguish it from the Snowy Egret (on the left in this photo).  Oh, so many white birds with so many sizes!
Yeah! The Common Yellow-throat - a bird I can identify without help! Dick and I think that no bird should have the word "Common" in its name. David was explaining the convoluted changes made to bird names by the AOU. They have to co-ordinate with the rest of the world, and will sometimes change a bird's name 3 or 4 times before ending up back at the name originally used. The Common Gallinule is a good example.
Marsh Wren
Several kinds of little brown jobs live in the marsh - but it's not easy to find them, since they like to hide in the brush. Our leaders were great at finding them in the scope (which always amazes me), then I would have to find them for my camera. This little Marsh Wren finally came out in the open!
Wilson's Snipe
We saw a dead Snipe the day before - hit by a car - but today we found one walking around on a mud flat, with the sun shining brightly on him. This is a life bird for us! Their long bills are flexible at the end, so they can open the tip without opening up to the top.
We've had excellent views of raptors this week. Many of them were in pairs, often displaying courtship behavior. I was a little surprised to find them about in the very early dawn.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
One of our target birds were Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, which we found at a small pond in the middle of a subdivision. They have black bellies (of course), and bright orange bills and legs, with a brown mohawk of feathers down the back of their heads. And yes, they do whistle rather than quacking.
Florida Scrub Jay
After a delicious, but extended lunch at a local restaurant, we sped over to Merritt Island for a few more birds. The target was the endemic and endangered Florida Scrub Jay, which needs precise habitat conditions. We walked back into the scrub for a ways, and the leaders called and pished like crazy before ONE bird finally came up to see what all the ruckus was about.
Dick and I drove back to Merritt Island to get a view of the Great Horned Owl who had taken over an Osprey nest on an old power line. You can see the insulators (I think that's what they are) under the sticks. She sat snoozing in the afternoon sun. I think it may get pretty hot there for her chicks in a few months.
Painted Bunting
We had gone to the Merritt Island visitors center once this week, looking for the Painted Buntings who live there, with no success.  On another trip, we found some in the brush, and it took six different photos of different parts of the bird to see what he looked like all together. But third time charm, apparently, since the male and female buntings came out for a quick snack at the feeders, before being chased away by raucous Red-wings Blackbirds. The quest for the Painted Bunting photo has ended successfully!
The forecast for Sunday was for rain all morning, so we stopped at Walmart for some rain gear on the way home. Out in the parking lot, I kept hearing an Osprey call and found her trying to build a nest on top of the light post, while her mate perched on the next pole. He didn't seem interested in gather sticks as she told him. Ospreys are very flexible in their nesting sites!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Restoration of Apopka Lake

On Friday we took an all day trip to Apopka Lake, the third largest lake in Florida but that isn't its real claim to fame (or infamy). Lake Apopka was once a world-class bass fishery. However, the lake was named Florida’s most polluted large lake following a century of abuse that began in the 1890s with construction of the Apopka-Beauclair Canal that lowered lake levels by a third. In 1981, an EPA investigation began and the site was decommissioned and designated as a Superfund clean-up site.
Green Heron

In addition, the decline of Lake Apopka can be traced to:
  • The loss of 20,000 acres of wetlands along the lake’s north shore to farming operations beginning in the 1940s
  • Agricultural discharges laden with phosphorus until the late 1990s
  • Treated wastewater discharges from shoreline communities prior to the 1980s
  • Discharges from citrus processing plants prior to the 1980s
The increase in nutrients discharged into the lake led to a chronic algal bloom, and Lake Apopka’s waters turned pea green. The cloudy water prevented sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation critical to fish and wildlife habitat.
Common Ground Dove
 An estimated 676 birds died on former farms at Lake Apopka during late 1998 and early 1999. Most were American white pelicans, wood storks and great blue herons. Organochlorine pesticide (OCPs) residues remaining from agricultural practices were the primary cause of bird deaths. Birds accumulated OCPs by consuming contaminated fish. The St. Johns River Water Management District has conducted research to better understand the accumulation of OCPs through the food chain, from contaminated soil to fish, and from fish to fish-eating birds.
Ring-necked Ducks
The continual settling of dead algae created a thick layer of soupy muck, which also destroyed the habitat necessary for fish and wildlife to thrive. The bass population significantly declined as gizzard shad became the predominant fish species in the lake. Once the bass disappeared, all the fish camps closed.
Lesser and Greater Yellow-legs
 The St. Johns River Water Management District’s Governing Board approved a rule in 2002 limiting the amount of phosphorus that can be discharged into Lake Apopka or its tributaries as a result of new construction in the lake’s watershed. The district has collaborated with local, state and federal agencies to:
  • Purchase agricultural land along the lake’s north shore, reducing the discharge of phosphorus from the farms and providing an opportunity to restore the former marshes to wetlands
  • Operate the marsh flow-way, which removes total phosphorus from Lake Apopka water
  • Harvest gizzard shad, removing phosphorus and nitrogen in fish tissue from the lake
  • Replant six native wetland species of vegetation in the water along the lake’s shoreline, which helps restore fish and wildlife habitat
Snowy Egret
 If  people care and act on that, changes can be made and pollution can be corrected. More than 19,000 acres of farm land has been purchased and converted marsh land. 19 metric tons of total phosphorus has been removed from the water. Gizzard shad had become the dominant species in the lake, but from 1993 through December 2010, more than 58 metric tons of phosphorus and 175 metric tons of nitrogen in fish tissue was removed from the lake. Six native wetland species of vegetation in the water along the lake’s shoreline, which helps restore fish and wildlife habitat. in a few hours we saw 65 species of birds around the lake and marshes. It can be done!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Smyrna Dunes

It's a busy time here at the Spacecoast Birding Festival. Between birding trips and going through all my pictures, plus going to bed early enough to meet for the 5:30 trip the next morning, (whew!) I haven't had lots of time for blogging. On Thursday, we joined leaders David LaPuma from the Cape May Observatory and Bill Thompson of Bird Watchers Digest. We have met them before at other events, and they are wonderful leaders, hearing and seeing birds I can't find even in a spotting scope. The beach itself is large and flat, and they allow cars to drive on it, which baffles me.
 We walked over the dunes on a boardwalk, then along the beach for gull lessons. Hundred of birds followed a shrimp boat farther out to sea. David got really excited when he sighted a Jaeger in the group. He describes this bird as a "cross between a gull and a peregrine falcon." It chases the gulls around until they barf up the fish they have eaten, and then he eats it. Yuck! You can recognize them even in the distance because they are larger, darker and faster than any other bird there. David sounded almost like a sports announcer at the race track as he described the attack.

The Bald Eagles were getting it on with courtship flights and copulation on a power pole. Can you imagine having sex at the top of a pole?
There must have been 10 or 12 Ospreys who did not migrate all the way to South America patrolling the shore. I love to watch them dive in for a fish and then shake all the water off when they come back up.
Along with the Laughing, Ring-billed and Herring gulls, we spotted some Lesser Black-backs and several kinds of terns, so we had good opportunities to compare them.
At first, all the Ruddy Turnstones stood on the rocks of the jetty, almost invisible to the eye. After a while though, they came over looking for hand outs. One guy turned over a dried up fish head, while a second little bird with a broken leg came right up to us. Turnstones breed in the tundra of the Arctic Circle, so we only see them in their winter plumage.
A Willet (left)and Greater Yellow-legs (right) faced off in the surf, giving us the opportunity to compare size, bill shape and coloration of these two similar birds.
At the parking lot, a little Carolina Wren told us what's what in no uncertain terms. I don't thinks our Kentucky birds are this orangey in the breast.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Birding at the Landfill

Here we are the the celebrated Spacecoast Birding Festival in Titusville, FL.  This is the 20th anniversary of the festival, and we've heard that the woman who ran it before isn't here anymore, and things have been a bit disorganized, to say the least. However, the birds are still here, and I'm not letting myself get discouraged.
Brevard County Solid Waste Landfill
Our first trip was to the landfill to ID gulls. We got the info on the facility before loading into one of their vans for a guided tour. The 192-acre permitted landfill area is lined by a clay slurry wall, groundwater monitoring wells were installed and a methane gas collection and flare system is in place.  The site originally consisted of 285 acres and now totals 957 acres. Portions of the landfill have gone through closure procedures by capping it with a liner, two feet of cover dirt and sod.  It is estimated the Landfill will have enough capacity to handle the disposal needs for Brevard County until 2018.
Garbage trucks and transfer trailers dump their waste onto the "working face" of the landfill. Heavy equipment then levels and compacts the garbage.  At the end of each day, the garbage is covered to reduce odors, and keep birds and animals from feeding on the garbage. But plenty of birds come to feast during the day.
The Turkey Vultures call this absolute heaven!
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls
The trip was to focus on identifying gulls, and I hoped we might see some of the more exotic gulls, but we saw only four species - Laughing, Ring-billed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring.
Although bill color was one feature we watched, occasionally you get a Laughing Gull with a red bill, which is just an anomaly.
White Ibis
I was surprised when flocks of White Ibis flew overhead. I always thought they were water feeders only, but apparently they come to the landfill feast too, along with the vultures, gulls, crows, wood storks and eagles.
NASA Launch Facility
From our elevation of 200 feet (?) we could see all around, including the NASA facility where they launched the shuttles.
Eagles, of course, are never disturbed by all the hubbub of lesser birds.
At times, it felt like we were all extras in a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "The Birds!" I have a new laptop, and it's going to take a while to adjust to the slight differences in the keyboard.