Thanksgiving in Florida: Yard Birds

This year I spent Thanksgiving in Florida visiting family and squeezing in as much birding as possible. Luckily, Florida makes that pretty easy. I visited two years ago and gained a new respect for birds I didn’t appreciate while growing up in the Sunshine State and I was excited to return and find more critters.

Takes specialized training, don’t try this at home

My mom lives in Tampa near the University of South Florida, Lettuce Lake Park, and a small but productive pond right next to the house. She would have a pretty bad-ass 5 mi-radius if she wanted. Two years ago, her yard produced my lifer Black-throated Green Warbler, and this time it gave me a lifer Prairie Warbler!

Blurry, but there’s a bright yellow chest and throat, dark streaks on the sides, olive back yellow eye crescents, and black eye-line. I refound it the next day to try for better photos.

So much better

This bird was tough to get! The best I could manage:

One easy warbler to find is the Palm Warbler.

They’re everywhere with that yellow undertail continually wagging.

Another easy find was Eastern Phoebe always calling “Fee-bee!

And Brown Thrashers, another great southern yard bird.

And of course, the ever ubiquitous, Northern Mockingbird.

I am any bird and all birds

One morning I heard a tussle of raspy high-pitched trills that turned out to be a NOMO street fight.

An Eastern Gray Squirrel and I watched safely from the sidelines.

Cheap seats

Closer to the pond I found a juvenile Little Blue Heron.

Almost all white with a hint of light blue coming in. Makes me wonder what evolutionary advantage having white followed by blue feathers could be? Curious.

Nearby I caught a quick glimpse of one of my favorite birds, the Gray Catbird.

And higher up in the trees were gobs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

It’s funny to think how popular the one gnatcatcher in Portland was, when there are so many here, but that’s the fun of rarities.

Other birds I saw were Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and bubbly House Wren.

Wren of the house

I heard a Carolina Wren singing before I finally spotted it deep in the shrubs.

And I saw another iconic yard bird, the Northern Cardinal.

I happily eye-balled all these birds I haven’t seen in so long, then noticed a bunch of  raucous Blue Jays.

And realized I wasn’t the only one eye-balling them. Cooper’s Hawk!

Fun stuff, I could spend days enjoying the yard birds, but we had to check into the condo on the beach the next day.

Many more Florida birds to come!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Florida neighborhood birds

Florida was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time. My family lives there, umpteen birds winter in the tropical region, and it’s freezing in Portland.

I spent a week warming up, visiting family, and getting to know Florida birds. Growing up in the Tampa Bay area I would occasionally notice Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals, but it has taken a decade of dark, rainy, Pacific NW winters combined with a new love of birds to truly appreciate my hometown.

Sunshine, palm trees, and birds in November? Yes, please!

Sunshine, palm trees, and birds in November? Yes, please!

My mom and I went for a walk around the neighborhood, and spotted numerous birds, like the elegant White Ibis. 

White Ibis

This species has acclimated to suburban life pretty well. They nest and feed near humans, and they greeted us each morning on the lawn. In aquatic habitats, they eat fish and arthropods like crayfish, and on greenspaces they forage for large insects…and lizards! No kidding. I caught this juvenile with a brown anole gripped in its bill.

White Ibis

White Ibis

Good for the ibis, sad for the lizard. I miss living around those cutie-pie little reptiles. They liven up sidewalks, fences, shrubs, pretty much all surfaces in Florida. As a child, they provided hours of entertainment; I’d catch and play with the mini-dinosaurs by the handfuls.

Brown Anole

But I digress. Back to birds, like the Palm Warbler! They were everywhere. Sporting their winter plumage, they flittered around on driveways, lawns, shrubs, and even roofs, as they showed off their yellow undertail while making their signature tail wag.

Palm Warbler

And I saw grackles, phoebes, and mockingbirds – oh my!

So fun. On our walk we also saw three woodpecker species, a Downy Woodpecker, and two new woodpeckers! A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (juvenile) and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

Rain was in the forecast, but we continued along to the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens. Along the way, we spotted a Brown Thrasher!

Brown Thrasher

Lucky sighting. At the gardens we saw more Palm Warblers, a Bald Eagle mobbed by grackles, and a quick two-second glimpse of a Gray Catbird!

Gray Catbird

No way! I once drove a great distance to Eastern Washington in search of a Gray Catbird to no avail. It’s that easy, Florida? Okay, then.

Returning to the house, we got a big surprise.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Make that two surprises!

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks! These birds were on my I-hope-to-see-these-in-Florida list and here were two perched on the light post just outside the house. How cool. They flew to the top of a parking garage, then returned later to a nearby pine tree. What a gorgeous pair of birds.

Not bad for a quick walk around the neighborhood. But that’s not all! I couldn’t get enough, so I returned to the USF campus to wander around, thwart campus security, and chase flocks of birds. Because that’s what you do when you’re in Florida.

I followed this flock to get a better look of the Eastern Bluebird. (and Palm Warblers in background). Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Nice! I also noticed a small black and white bird that was totally a nuthatch but not a nuthatch.

Black-and-white Warbler

Once I read the description in Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID App, “creeps along branches like a nuthatch, searching for insects,” I knew this was a Black-and-white Warbler. (I’m curious why it’s not called a Black-and-white Nuthatch; something to do with genetics?) The genus Mniotilta (nee-o-TIL-ta) is Greek origin from mnion, moss, and tiltos, plucked. The Black-and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) uses moss to construct its nest.

I saw a female Summer Tanager (wish I’d seen a male too!). They use their large bills to catch wasps and bees on the fly. I wonder if that’s what she’s munching on.

Summer Tanager

I saw another insect-lover, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

And if that weren’t enough, I returned to the house to find a Carolina Wren in the yard (looks like the eastern version of the Bewick’s Wren). 

Carolina Wren

AND a Black-throated Green Warbler!

Black-throated Green Warbler

So pretty! It was icing at this point. I watched the attractive little warbler catch insects around the ferns before flying far away to the treetops.

I lived in Florida for eighteen years, but I’d never seen its beauty in this way. I was always too focused on the heat, traffic, bugs, tourists, and moving as far away as I could. The change in perspective was refreshing. Satisfied with my first day acclimating to New Florida, I looked forward to seeking out the beauty of the next day!

Sunny tweets and chirps,

Audrey