Friday, May 06, 2016

Final Day of Ultimate South Florida Tour

Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower
The Wildlife Center and Zachary Taylor Park were only the start of a last day in Florida. Following those morning wanderings, Larry drove us north, with a stop to peak at a historical folly, the Sugarloaf Key's Bat Tower (same bat time, same bat location of course). This weather gray tower was built in 1929 in hopes of providing a base for bats that would then do the tower's builder a favor by eating all the malaria carrying mosquitoes.  Bats, carefully installed in the tower, flew 'bye-bye' never to be seen again; silly, ungrateful bats... Luckily, this tower, which is on the National Registry of Historic places, does make a tolerably good Osprey nest stand.

Later on the drive north, Larry ducked off to a road that ran parallel to the shore line. We only had a short walk in to view the long coast.
An unknown - to me - Florida key  shore 
There were clouds of Great White Butterflies dancing about, and a great many shore birds long the beach. Larry brought us there as a Neotropic Cormorants are there occasionally, but not today.

just off shore... Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans
Of great interest to me were more Semipalmated Sandpipers than I had ever seen in one spot before.  There were dozens of sandpiper digital shots for me to take and mull over in quiet joy.

Semipalmated Sandpiper 
A little jog on the beach
You can very-nearly-almost see semipalmation (webbing) on its toes
Beware of hitting Key Deer

There are two things one looks forward to when visiting the Florida Keys, the second being seeing Key Deer. The Key Deer are the scaled down version of White-tailed Deer, that are nearly always endangered, certainly because among other causes, they seem to get hit by cars a LOT.      

We had our eyes peeled for mini-deer, but it wasn't until our last day a few were located, lolling about on someone's lawn.
Key Deer are about the size of a German Shepard dog
Key Deer fawn
Fawn and buck, with antlers in velvet
 Always does my heart good to see deer, and seeing Key Deer is seeing the .

the Precious...

For lunch our group dropped in on a small diner, located kitty corner to the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key. While everyone else enjoyed a nice sit down lunch, I was off fumbling and fooling about in the Refuge Visitor Center. I got my Blue Goose Passport Stamp a couple of t-shirts and, as I seem to have broke the bank, a free reusable Refuge satchel for toting my booty.
Best refuge toy section EVER!

Oh, and also had educational exhibits like the gator (top) and crock (bottom) here. 'nuff meringue there Butch?
Now a bit ago I mentioned the second thing one looks forward to when visiting the Keys. The first one is, almost needless to say, Key Lime Pie.

In Key West I had a 'so-so' slice of pie at one of our Key West suppers, but it was mostly melange and though tasty, for me it just wasn't quite the real deal. One of us asked a waitress where we could get a really good slice of pie and she told us 'real deal' could be found in a different, but delightful form, on our drive north.

I was worried we might shoot past the pie location without seeing it, but as you can tell below, no way one zips past this confection of a building without noticing it.

Best Junk food E-vah! 
And there inside 'Key Largo Chocolates' were enough sweets to make your teeth spontaneously develop cavities...

Then HUZZAH! We found what we looked for - FROZEN, chocolate dipped key lime pie-on-a-stick! OHMYGAWD, OHMYGAWD, talk about delish. This frozen confection was totally worth the week long wait.


Additional view of the lusciousness that is frozen chocolate dipped key lime pie...
Following our frozen treats, we finally settled into the long drive back north to Miami, but there was one last treat to look forward to, that ran no risk of exceeding one's calorie limit for the day. Larry drove us over to a Miami area bridge where Caribbean Cave Swallows were keeping house... keeping nest. The Cave Swallows weren't lifers for any of us, but I was itching to get some kind of photos for the species. You can see below my shots are all a fuzzy, because I still haven't taken the time to learn to use my 'fancy schmansy' camera's ability to increase the depth of field when shooting fast moving bullets on the wing. Ugh! Must learn to do so for my next pelagic trip, I mean having to learn this after a b'jillion years of field photography is, one must admit, a bit ridiculous.
Cave Swallow shoot past at speed of sound birdie
Note that lovely chestnut rump
This is the best shot I got of one of the Cave Swallows 
So mid-afternoon, my week long 'clean-up' trip for seeing the Florida birds I'd missed finding on my own via Larry Manfredi's Ultimate South Florida Tour ended. I totally recommend Larry's tours to any birder. All week long, under his care, I felt like Princess Claire. In the late afternoon, Larry dropped me off at a hotel I'd booked myself into during the afternoon, on line, on the fly.  While we drove there I mentally tallied up my trip lifers. I thought at first that I'd reached 650 on my ABA life list but after checking what birds are 'countable' the final tally was 648, But hey - make NO mistake about it, I am chuffed! Just for brag-ies, here's my list of lifer birds tallied up for me this past week - not to forget numerous non-lifer birds and other fauna I enjoyed all week. I'd celebrate a 'high-five' with you over any one of these feathery bits of awesomeness.

Common Myna                   Dusky Seaside Sparrow         Mangrove Cuckoo
Black-Whiskered Vireo       Monk Parakeet                      Spot-breasted Oriole
Egyptian Goose                   Nanday Parakeet                   Chestnut-fronted Macaw
Gray-headed Swamphen     Smooth-billed Ani                 Bachman's Sparrow
Short-tailed Hawk               Gray-cheeked Thrush            Antillean Nighthawk
Muscovy Duck

Key West Bird Fest

Trio of White-crowned Pigeons in Key West
Well nearly a blue sky!
Double fudge dagnabbit, today was the final day of the South Florida tour! To begin the day as we headed out to breakfast, Larry halted the van, allowing photography of  White-crowned pigeons against a spectacularly clear, blue sky.
Oh, there'd been other chances for pix of White-crowns but not so close or with such a good setting. White-crowns are so regal looking - for pigeons anyway.

We made a short stop at the Key West Wildlife Center where injured critters find health care and solace. We ran across far more convalescing critters than wild birds there. I did enjoy the chance to get up front and personal with a small flock of juvenile White Ibis.

We then returned to Fort Zachary Taylor Park for a long morning walk on the look-out for interesting birds and hopefully a few vagrant birds. The park held quite a number of warblers.

Cape May Warbler
Tennessee Warbler with caterpillar snack
Black and White Warbler
male Blackpoll Warbler
male Chestnut-sided Warbler

While roaming around in the shrubbery what we hoped was a Connecticut Warbler was heard. I was really praying for that one to pan out, but the energetic songster was a pretty little Northern Waterthrush.
Trilling Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush no longer pretending to be a Connecticut Warbler
Really, seeing so many different warblers in one morning is something I used to dream about when I was a kid, so I can't emphasis how happy those little feathered flutterbys make me. There were loads of other bird types about too.
Magnificent Frigatebird
Green Heron up a tree
I could post another dozen birds we saw at Zachary Taylor, but I'll cut you a break, and just show you some of the humans roaming the park.
Steve, Marian and Larry posing for me at Zachary Taylor
Oh, and before leaving Zachary Taylor, I ought to show at least a bit of the park that doesn't include birdies.  The park surrounds the actual Fort Zachary Taylor. Scrambling around my photographs it was hard to come up with a good view of the fort, but here's the best I've got. The first view below was taken through a screen of saplings, and across the greenish looking moat. I was slightly distracted by birds, can you tell?
A view of a Fort Zachary Taylor wall
Only slightly better view of Fort Zachary Taylor
The fort is just to the right of this photo (with cruise ship in distance)
This spot complete with canon balls is located inside the fort which I never went into
The Fort can be toured, but we were there for the birdies so that's what we stuck to. Just to show I'm not immune to other 'pretty things' however, here are two non-bird beings.
Cassius Blue Butterfly
Zebra Longwing Butterfly
Zachary Taylor State Park was by no means the end of my last day in Florida, but I'll save the rest for another post. You've seen enough winged beings for just now.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Some 'Key' Night Sky Magic

Sire of many, many chicks.
After spending the bulk of the day birding in the Dry Tortugas, our mini-tour group returned to Key West, later enjoying dinner at a restaurant by a beach. While awaiting our orders, we were entertained by feral chickens: a Rooster, Hen and chicks.
Chicks in Cleopatra eye makeup; how typically Key West
Post dinner, our motley crew again assembled. All eyes were on the sky at the Key West airport on the lookout for Antillean Nighthawks. We scored a raccoon, but no nighthawks of any sort were seen or heard. Not giving up, Larry drove us north to a second secluded site he knew of on the Cudjoe Key. Soon  we quietly stood on a quiet street in the boonies, along side a waterway. Larry told us to listen for the nighthawk's unusual call of 'Pitty Pit Pit!'. Really the call was surprising, as Common & Lesser Nighthawks - species I'm used to, have calls more like a cross between a UFO and an intergalactic rubber-band. Then Larry called out, pointing to a dark arrow in the sky.

All eyes on the sky to view the first Antillean soaring by. Then a second bird floated in the distance, it too calling out to warn the other birds of its presence. Watching the nighthawks - no clue how many we saw in total - my camera clicked merrily away. Did I manage any great picture? Nope! Wish I'd had my iPhone's mini-microphone with me for recordings of the bird's unique call. 

Here is one of my gawdawful grainy photos below. The white wing patches of the Antillean can very nearly almost be viewed.
 Antillean Nighthawk twilight shot
Once again, Larry had shown us a bird I honestly thought I was never going to get to see in Florida in this lifetime. Hurray! A wonderful bird... number 648 is a sound addition to my AB life list. 

Here is a stunning Antillean Nighthawk shot I scrounged up on line - so you know what an Antillean Nighthawk looks like when photographed by the light of day.
by Dax M. Roman E.
What a great day today was, all the way from the Dry Tortugas to the Cudjoe Key.

The Dry Tortugas

The Yankee Freedom III
The bow of the YFIII
This morning our 4 person tour loaded onto the The Yankee Freedom III along with loads and loads of eager tourists. The Yankee is the National Park's daily ferry to the jewel of the the Dry Tortugas: Fort Jefferson on the Garden Key. The trip is another 'revisit' for me. My previous Tortuga trip was via a small cruise boat, which doubled as our hotel for several days. This time the trip is for a single, birdy-laiden, heavenly day.

The journey out of Key West was and remains, 70 miles on quite a bumpy sea, Thank heavens I don't get sea sick. Unfortunately for our little squad, the hurling masses included stalwart soul, Steven. He had the tenacity to stick it out, even though going in, he knew it was going to be rough. The man is quite the trouper!
Approaching Fort Jefferson on the Garden Key
The Garden Key dock
And are the Tortugas worth a green-gilled morning? Perhaps the Tortuga's recent claim to fame as a location where Captain Jack Sparrow sailed? A little, maybe. Is it then Fort Jefferson, when it was a prions, in which of Dr. Mudd did a stint for having tended to the infamous John Wilkes Booth? Nope. Come on, you know better. it's the birding!
Larry scoping for the Black Noddy
On debarking the Yankee, our little group hot-footed it north to view Long Key over which clouds of Brown Noddies shrieked. Larry set up a scope to look for the sole Black Noddy, known to prefer a particular perch on a beach-side snag. The noddy was not there, leading me to realize just how lucky I saw a Black Noddy in 1998... which is not to say I wouldn't love a second chance to  . We knew we could try again for the noddy later, so we headed off for the interior of Fort Jefferson.

View of Fort Jefferson, as we headed
back from looking for the Noddy 
Over the moat and into Ft. Jefferson
The fort is a beautiful building, it's bricks worn and beaten down by many a tropical storm. We hoped yesterday's storm might cause a 'fall out', i.e., tired birds dropping into the fort for a rest. That, did happen to a degree. There were warblers and other birds everywhere you could look. As for exhaustion, sadly there were Barn Swallows dotted throughout the grounds, like the one below that sat by the moat, looking woebegone, and tired.
Bedraggled little Barn Swallow
Inside the Fort, the interior is a lush & green. garden and everywhere one looked there were birds.

Lots of grounds in the Fort interior
The entrance in the interior of the Fort 
The birds can seem 'tame' as did the female Hooded Warbler below. She hopped around at eye level in one of the trees (seen above). I got the photo below from distance with my long lens. The pink knobs on the lower right of the photo are the knuckles of another birder who walked right up to the bird for phone photo. 
Female Hooded Warbler  
There's never knowing what will pop up in the fort on any given day it amounts to a crap shoot. Today I won the shoot - Larry pointed out a little grey-ish thrush, which was a lifer for me; a Grey-cheeked Thrush.
Cute little biddie; Grey-cheeked Thrush
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Ovenbirds, Yellow, Magnolia, Black and White, Black-throated Green Prairie and sundry other Warblers, with Kingbirds littered about. Hungry Cattle Egrets strolling around on the lawns like they owned the place.  
Gray Kingbird
Scattering of Eastern Kingbirds
Indigo Bunting
Overhead Frigatebirds surveyed the grounds, and various raptors paroled for their lunch. I saw one Peregrine Falcon, a few Merlin and many Sharp-shinned Hawks. 
Magnificent Frigatebird
Aerodynamic Merlin
Tyrant of the Tortuga: Peregrine Falcon
Really, the fierce-some little Sharp-shins were everywhere and I've never had a better opportunity to get action Sharpie pics. I shot one swooping bird just outside the fort, getting many interesting shots of the bird sailing past tourists. 
Sharpie swooping past tourists that did not notice the bird
It was interesting to hear Larry say that for all his b'jillion trips to the Tortugas he has never seen a Cooper's Hawk. Wow! That thought should keep me up nights wondering. 

It occurs to me - as it rarely does - I ought to show pics of the grounds itself, however bird free, as the Fort is awesome. I probably spent an hour or so wandering about on my own. Everywhere there were birds and history. The view below faces where rangers are boarded as well as where a Northern Waterthrush hopped around the underbrush. 
Facing Ranger's Quarters
Remnants of old barracks with 'case-mates' or gun rooms in the rear
 The building below was the Hot Shot Furnace. Cannon balls were loaded at the high end and super heated to cherry red balls when they emerged at the bottom.

Hot Shot Furnace
Bottom of Hot Shot Furnace, where cannon balls emerged
The super heated cannon balls were taken via tongs, to be shot from cannons to hit enemy ships.
Larry crossing 'Large Parade Magazine' whatevertheeff that is
Larry told us that several times escaping Cubans have shot for Fort Jefferson as a good place to seek their initial refuge. There are several such 'chugs' at the fort, that were used by freedom seeking Cuban refugees.
One of several 'chugs' or escape boats at the Fort 
At noon all returned to the Yankee Freedom III for a quick buffet lunch.  Headed for the lunch, I noticed all the Yankee's dock, and the front of the fort, tame Ruddy Turnstones darted about. They behaved more like pesky pigeons than shorebirds. They begged picnickers for crumbs - and of course, got it.  Got no pics begging but a great one of one Turnstone so close to my feet, I had to back up to get the photo below.
Ruddy Turnstone
The winding stone stairwell
Post lunch we returned the Fort for and took the ancient winding stone stairwell up to the top of the fort, by the Lighthouse.

The views from the top of the Fort are marvelous.

View from 2nd landing of stairwell on the way up

The view, stepping out of the stairwell - that's cannon 'dead' center
Looking back at the cannon and the lighthouse
Looking north past the moat
Southern view
Larry took up a post in front of the Fort lighthouse, setting his spotting scope towards Long Key. 
There, huge flocks of Brown Noddys and Frigatebirds swirled. A peregrine dive bombed the isle, which kept the birds on their toes... or rather on their wings.
Frigatebirds and Brown Noddies by the Long Key
Alas, again the Black Noddy was a no-show, as it was probably out there somewhere among the falcon stirred Brown Noddies. I did get a better look at the noddys earlier, out by the 'coaling docks'. The coaling dock is now in ruins of just the posts but that is where lots of noddys and gulls take it easy
Coaling Dock with its Noddys and a scattering of terns/gulls
Four Brown Noddys
The Yankee headed left dock around 3:30 and headed onto the turquoise sea. The captain slowed down so all could have a peek at the Hospital Key where flocks of Masked Boobys littered the shore.
Hospital Key 

Enlarged, teensy bit better view of Masked Boobys

I spent the trip back to Key West on the ship's bow, hoping to see a Bridled Tern. Oooo had I gone to the top deck with Larry and the others I'd have seen my lifer. Rats! Oh well, another time.

Sooty Tern on the return to Key West
I wished this trip to the Tortugas could be an overnighter, but mustn't be greedy. Maybe I'll make it back a third time, and maybe that trip will be an overnighter. Still, no complaints - our tour group wasn't done birding for the day.
My precious....
[UPDATE.. er... Backdate: Just for the heck of it, here below are recently re-discovered scans of negatives from my 1998 Florida trip. Below is the original, the greatest, the First Yankee Freedom boat. On that trip o' so many years ago, there were maybe 30 of us birders. We boarded the Yankee in the evening, and as the ocean was gawdawful, it didn't head out to the Tortugas until nearly midnight. The trip out was so rough, as I lay in my bunk, in a room with at least a half dozen other women, I could hear the sound of abject misery, i.e., barfing above the sound of the engine chugging away. Next morning I heard that even the captain was barfing, along with just nearly everyone else - save for the lucky farts such as myself. The trip had been so rough, a couple of passengers refused to take the boat back to Key West, so they hired a sea plane to ferry them back. 
My 'ride' in 1998, the original Yankee Freedom
I can't believe I'm even posting this, but here I am, or was, back in 1998. Note the fat knees and massive grin. 
Hold old is this photo? Note the ratchet marks along the the top, from the negative I scanned this from, not to mention, notice I'm wearing a watch. Do you even remember what watches are?
On that trip, our boat load were the only tourists on the Garden Key for three days, save for other tourists at the Garden Key's campground. My group would return to the Yankee Freedom for meals and for sleeping at night. Daytime we'd tour the Garden key sometimes returning on board to toodle around the Tortugas to view Tortuga islands, such as the Hospital Key. One day we snorkled on the shores of the Loggerhead Key.  

Male Frigatebird, art by David Sibley
One morning we took turns ferrying to the Bush Key for a closer view of the Brown Noddys and nesting Frigatebirds. The male Frigates had massive, & rather obscene looking red throat pouches they made an equally obscene noise with. All that and I got NO photos as I had nothing more than a 25 mm lens back then.