Florida: Fort De Soto Park

To see even more beach birds my dad and I visited was Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde, FL. It is the largest county park within Pinellas County park system at 1,136 acres made up of five islands (keys), beaches, mangroves, wetlands, and upland trails. There’s camping, but I’ve heard it’s popular and hard to get reservations. Amazingly, the park boasts “more than 328 bird species that have been documented by ornithologists.” (339 on eBird!)

We were excited to see what we could find. Before I even left for Florida, I signed up for Pinellas County rare bird alerts just in case something came up and a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers had been reported the day before we were set to visit the park. I hadn’t seen STFL since Texas and my dad had never seen one so we both agreed it was worth checking out.

We went to East Beach where they’d been sighted first thing in the morning, but unfortunately no luck. So we looked at Osprey instead. We couldn’t find one without a fish.

That’s not true, we saw some with sticks.

Busy building nests, the Osprey didn’t collect sticks like civilized birds, they actually crashed into bare tree branches breaking twigs off. Pretty clever behavior I haven’t seen before.

We then checked on a smaller beach nearby and found a plethora of plovers. Including Wilson’s Plover.

There’s just no good angle that makes that bill look cute.

Nope, crab doesn’t help

For comparison we saw a Semipalmated Plover.

And the cutest of all, a Piping Plover! I was over the moon to find this little lifer plover.

And it was banded!

I learned this Piping Plover was banded as a chick on the Missouri River near Yankton, SD by researchers from Virginia Tech on 7/20/2012 and is a regular winter resident at Ft De Soto. So cool! We both migrated pretty far to meet at this spot.

My dad and I also saw Black-bellied Plovers but they are in a world of their own.

Pulling long worms out.

And sucking them up. Yum.

I tried hard to turn one of the Black-bellied Plovers into an American Golden-Plover, but I never could extend the wing tips beyond the tail.

Further on we continued to North Beach where we spotted one of our target birds right out in the open (the Steve Buscemi of birds?).

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron! Out in daylight?

There were three of them! Reading up on this species, despite the name, they’ll forage at all hours of the day and night. It was very surprising, something my dad said he’s never seen. The opportunistic crabbers will lunge, and shake or swallow their prey whole.

Lunge

Shake

And true to form, fly away and devour.

We watched until my calves ached from crouching in the mudflats and when it was time to leave and we had to walk right by one right on the shore.

My dad and YCNH

It was so cool. As was the second Piping Plover sighting! Adorable.

Hey, don’t look now, but there goes a Willet running by!

We’d hoped to have spotted a Reddish Egret by now, and we did but it was far, far away on an island of misfit birds.

Where we also saw American White Pelicans resting.

It was getting late into the afternoon by now so we walked back along the beach towards the parking lot. And wouldn’t you know it. Who’s that dancing in the water up ahead!?

Reddish Egret! So much drama, and so entertaining to watch.

I showed Tomas a photo, and he agreed. King of the world.

Ehem, anyways. It was late in the day, but not too late to check again on Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Why not look one more time on the way out?

Along the way we had several false alarms that turned out to be a grackle, mockingbird, and then a Loggerhead Shrike!

We returned to East Beach at about 3pm and walked along the trail passing more Osprey with more fish (why is this not the state bird instead of the Northern Mockingbird?).

But wait a minute! What’s that long-tailed bird behind the Osprey?

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! We’d found it!

Piece of cake. There were two, but we only got a quick glimpse of the second before it disappeared. Luckily the other stayed flycatching from the tree-tops while we watched in amazement.

It’s best to end on a high note, so we called it a day. In total, we found a solid 45 species at Fort De Soto, and concluded another successful day of birding in Florida!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Florida: Beach Birds

My family has timeshare at a condo at Madeira Beach and I returned this year to spend time with them and check out the birds. Two years ago I remembered a large flock of resting birds on the beach right in front of the condo that included Black Skimmers that totally blew my mind.

They were back!

I was so happy to revisit these charismatic birds.

Having two more years of birding under my belt, I felt I had a better grip on shorebirds, terns, and gulls. It felt really good to apply what I’ve learned as I scanned the flock, focused on field marks, and looked for the differences.

If your bill looks like it was dipped in mustard, you’re a Sandwich Tern.

If you’re balding except for those Bart Simpson spikes in the back, you’re a Royal Tern.

Banded!

I haven’t thought of anything clever for the Forster’s Tern, so if you’re a small tern leftover with a dark comma by the eye and orange legs you’re a Forster’s Tern.

Ring-billed Gulls were there.

As were effervescent Laughing Gulls.

And the first day I saw a rather large gull that stood out in the flock.

That dark back, light eye, the stern look. It was almost like a Herring Gull but the back was too dark. Hopeful, I looked up black-backed gulls and this one fits perfectly with Lesser Black-backed Gull. Identify-new-gull achievement unlocked!

Lesser Black-backed Gull headstand combo

The Lesser Black-backed Gull had a bully persona to go along with that stern look.

The terns weren’t as thrilled as I was to have it around.

To me the Lesser Black-backed Gull looks like a gull that’s been up all night drinking. He’s tired, cranky and means business.

The beach rewarded me with something different each day. Last time I found one Red Knot, this time I found a whole lot of knots.

I see you back there Black-bellied Plover

Late afternoon one day as I went for a swim with my mom and aunt in the gulf, almost as soon as I entered the water (and acclimated to the chilly water temp) I looked up high in the sky and thought I recognized the shape of a Magnificent Frigatebird. I’d hoped to see one on the trip, but this was terrible timing!

Not wanting to miss the photo opp I awkwardly splashed out of the water, ran all the way back up to the room grabbed my camera, and hurried back to the beach to snap a few pics. Then it was back to the room to drop off the camera, back to the beach and into the waters again to relax and swim. It was totally worth it.

Confirmed

It wasn’t until later that I noticed even more frigatebirds in the sky.

First there was one, then a few, and suddenly a dozen. Later, while my mom and I visited the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary down the street I looked up and counted 28! I managed to get 20 in one photo. Crazy. It was some kind of frigatebird meetup (my aunt called them “friggin birds” by then).

Back to the Seabird Sanctuary (an awesome place!), bonus points to anyone who can identify this handsome gull housed there.

Towards the end of the week, while scanning terns I noticed an imposter next to the Forster’s Tern. The Sandwich Tern noticed too.

That dark spot next to the eye is incomplete, then I noticed the leg color was different.

That’s a nice gull from home! A Bonaparte’s Gull. I found a handful more the next day.

On the last day at the condo, I walked out to check the birds for a final time, and as I scanned through, I noticed a gold eye in the mix.

Oh yes, American Oystercatcher! My prior sightings of this species have always been so far away so it was nice to finally appreciate a close-up view of this one. Hey, there.

And the last evening on the beach the final show was put on by Black Skimmers skimming.

I couldn’t believe my luck, it was the best of beach times.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Shell Island, Florida

While on vacation visiting my family in Florida, my mom and I took a boat ride to Shell Key Island. This wouldn’t be like the last time I was on a boat when I got horribly seasick. This was a 10-minute quick trip from St. Pete Beach to Shell Key Island, part recreation destination, part wildlife preserve, part bird haven.

Shell Key Island

I’d never been before, but I heard a rumor that hundreds of White Pelicans nest there in the winter. My grandfather grumbled something about damn White Pelicans stealing his fish in Montana, but I was super stoked.

While waiting to board the boat, I spent the few spare moments appreciating the local Brown Pelicans hanging out by the docks.

Brown Pelican

Brown PelicanBrown PelicanBrown Pelican

I can’t help it. Every time I see Brown Pelicans with their long stretched out bills, it reminds me of Alec Baldwin (Adam) in Beetlejuice. Ooh, scary.

Beetlecan

See the resemblance? No?

Anyways, we eventually boarded the boat and set off. The island has no facilities and it is pretty rugged. It’s what I imagine Florida probably looked like before all the urban development and huge condo strips. Though practically swimming distance from civilization we felt like we had arrived at our own deserted island. Complete with oranges on the shore. It was awesome.

Shell Key Island

Shell Key Island Orange IslandShell Key Island

We crossed the sandy dunes toward where the captain said the pelicans should be. Along the way, I decided that the island should be called “Spur Island” after those vicious sandspurs. In reality they’re probably a good deterrent keeping people from trekking all over the place. Except me. (To be clear, I followed all island regulations and did not trespass in the bird nesting area).

We got to the pelicans just in time for a boat to speed by in the wake zone and scare them. I managed a couple of quick shots. White Pelicans!

White Pelican

White Pelican

White Pelican

Since they were long gone, we went back to the beach to eat lunch, look for shells, and watch the Foster’s Terns dive-bomb fish. It was a grand time, but after a bit we thought it might be worthwhile to check back in on the pelicans.

I’m glad we did. They were back! Hundreds of them! As were many shorebirds that I couldn’t identify from a distance. (Dunlins, Sanderlings, sandpipers?)

White Pelican

White Pelican

Shorebirds and a pelicanShorebirdsShorebirds, so far away

I did manage to find an American Oystercatcher! (in between the pelicans) I was pretty excited to find one since I had seen signs posted that they nest on the island.

American Oystercatcher

Shell Key Island

And a Little Blue Heron!

Little Blue Heron

I got a closer look at a few (I’m pretty sure) Dunlins. 

Dunlin

Dunlin

My mom and I happily watched the pelicans and shorebirds for a while, then went back to relax on the beach. Tough life. While relaxing I couldn’t help but notice a few birds in the water, like the Horned Grebe.

Horned Grebe

And another exciting sighting was a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds (!!) that flew overhead at one point. I didn’t get the best look at them, and in fact, in the moment I knew they were something unique, but I thought maybe they were a kite of some sort. Until I looked it up. Nope, Mag Frig!! How awesome. Here’s my one quick frantic shot of one of them. Those long wings! I kept one eye on the sky after this, but didn’t see another.

Magnificent Frigatebird

I also saw an American Kestrel on the island and a Red-breasted Merganser that flew by over the water.

American KestrelRed-breasted MerganserRed-breasted Merganser

And, yes! We even found shells during our time on Shell Island. Though we did not take them. Instead, we filled our (provided) shell bag with garbage we picked up on the island. Leaving it better than we found it.

ShellsSand DollarRelaxing

Back at the dock we were greeted by a Snowy Egret (black legs and yellow feet!).

Snowy EgretSnowy EgretSnowy Egret

And a Great Egret! (larger, black legs and feet).

Snowy and Great EgretIMG_5545 (2)IMG_5544

And because this is Florida, and the birding never ends, here’s a Green Heron we found wading in the pool when we returned back at our condo.

Green Heron

Green HeronGreen HeronGreen Heron

Green Heron

Thanks, Florida!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey