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

Texas: Old Port Isabel Rd to Mexico

Heavy fog rolled in the next morning but it didn’t take long for the blazing sun to burn it off. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is hot. Each day I dug deep to my Floridian roots, sucked it up, and birded through the thick wall of humidity and heat. While applying regular applications of sunscreen and bug spray. It’s easy to forget that trying daily routine from the (mostly) comfy Pacific NW.

But of course the same reasons I’m repelled from the southeastern US are what attracts such a great diversity of birds. Heat and bugs. We had plenty of both at our next Texas hotspot, Old Port Isabel Road, seven miles of gravel road through lowland open grassland habitat.

One of the first bird’s to greet us was the Eastern Meadowlark.

I recognize that shape. This meadowlark is best distinguished from the Western variety by song. Western: a rich, low, descending warble “sleep loo lidi lidijuvi.” Eastern: simple, clear, slurred whistles “seeeooaaa seeeeadoo” higher, clearer, with no gurgles (Sibley 2016).

Brightens up that rusty post

Shortly after we heard another tell-tale “Bob-white” call of the Northern Bobwhite! This was one of my most eagerly anticipated sightings. So cool. Even if they just ran away from us.

Then someone spotted a White-tailed Hawk far in the distance. Worst views ever so here’s a slightly less worse view from a later sighting. Clearly white-tailed.

I should mention another hawk of Texas that should have been familiar but wasn’t.

Red-tailed Hawks. Like the one below. Where are the patagial marks? It doesn’t match Eastern or Southwestern varieties in guidebooks. Leave it to red-tails to break the mold. Jerks.

At least Harris’s Hawks follow the rules. And there were plenty of these along the road.

Not just raptors, there was also a fun new sparrow to ID, the Olive Sparrow. It has one of the greatest sparrow songs I’ve heard with a catchy bouncy-trill ending.

Near the end of this road we all got a great surprise on a telephone pole.

Mythical falcons seen only in guidebooks come to life. Aplomado Falcons! (Aplomado  Spanish for “lead-colored”). Then they did what no birds ever do. They both flew directly towards us.

They passed us by at eye level flying incredibly fast and low over the prairie.

It was absolutely stunning. There’s some controversy about “counting” this species for checklists; they currently meet the ABA checklist requirements but “Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC) currently considers the reintroduced population of Aplomado Falcon to be not established, nor self-sustaining and thus deems this species not countable.”

The last wild breeding pair was seen in New Mexico in 1952. These that we saw are a result of a falcon-reintroduction program by the Peregrine Fund. Thanks to predator-resistant nesting platforms and the release of 1,500 chicks (since the 80s) there is now a small breeding population in this part of Texas.

I’m grateful because either way you count it, the falcons are amazing. And since it’s my 400th bird species they count extra for me.

What happens after an Aplomado sighting? We could have ridden the high the rest of the day but it was still early. So we did the only thing we could do. We headed to South Padre Island for 0.99 beer bongs.

Jk. We birded on. The afterparty started at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center where a white-morph Reddish Egret drunkenly danced in the tides.

An Osprey danced with a Northern Mockingbird.

Black Skimmers danced in the sky.

And gators sat stoned grinning in the corner.

We also saw Scissor-tailed Flycatchers aka wallflowers.

And Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron doing The Robot.

It was good times. We took a break from partying and birded near a random boat ramp.

Among other shorebirds, we found a Wilson’s Plover under the only bit of shade around.

Then there was time for one last stop. Mexico. Or at least up to the border. This took some confident driving skills by Jen.
 

 
At least the tide was going out. Right? Then, before picking out birds in Mexico, finding a dead dolphin on the beach, laughing at cartoon crabs and watching Max catch a fish with his bare hands, we had the second most exciting bird encounter of the day. AJ yelled for us to look at the dark bird over the water!

We all turned to see a Parasitic Jaeger chasing after a Sandwich Tern!

But you can’t see jaegers from the shore?! These are pelagic birds! You have to be seasick on a boat miles off shore to see them!

Except when you’re in Texas. Aplomado to Jaeger in a day? The tropics are growing on me.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey