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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

There Be Dragons in the Keys

Dragon, ready for its Jurassic Park close-up
Whizzing through the Keys
There be Dragons in the Florida Keys; all manner of beasties and birds. Today we headed south from Homestead, down Highway one, passing though each key. Larry gave us commentary as he drove and was sure to point out some of the sights. On Key Largo, we saw the little brown boat used in 1951's classic movie, The African Queen staring Humphrey Bogart and  Katherine Hepburn. I'm a classic from 1951 too, but unlike the Queen, I haven't sailed around the world twice.
The African Queen
Thar be deadly Poisonwood Tree
We arrived at Long Key, and as we entered Long Key State Park, a raccoon shot across the road, and before we knew it, Larry was leading us on a trail to look for a sparce exotic, the Key West Quail Dove. which either evaded us, or more likely had moved on to an area with better food. While we searched, Larry told us the names of many of the tall canopy of trees. They had interesting names, such as 'Gumbo Limbo' and 'Poisonwood' that has blistering sap. The spots on the tree on the left, are spots of oozing sap. Ewww...

There are thatched Seminole and Miccosukee structures all over Florida and they are made using Thatch Palm. The little palms are scattered all over on the Long Key trails.
Thatch Palm
Barbed Wire Cactus

A cactus that to my eye resembled the cacti of the Southwestern states, is an endangered cactus of the keys; Barbed Wire Cactus.

There were Sea Grape, a tree whose mildly grape flavored fruit is a favorite of many wild birds and mammals, including humans.
Sea Grapes shown are unripe - when ripe, are purple 
After searching one side of the park for the Key West Quail Dove, we went to the other side to search for Zenaida Dove. That was fun as we had to traverse a long wooden boardwalk over swamp.
Traipsing the Golden Orb Trail 
The Golden Orb Trail had its charms. There were little holes at the side of the white sandy trail, in which baseball sized Blue Crabs lurked.
Baseball sized Blue Crab in its burrow
Another crab I saw along the trail were little Mangrove Tree Crabs.
Only an inch worth of crab 
Walking the trail was fun, even though the spot shown below was flooded with ocean waters on the walk in, requiring taking off shoes to wade through. I did so, and was ticked off when my pedometer unfastened itself and PLUNK into the salty wet it sunk. It survived, & thank heavens, so did I.
Where the trail was under salt water on our way in,
high and dry on our way out
When we reached where the Zenaida Dove was last seen, we looked high and low but did not find the dove. Larry suspects the bird was off hiding on its nest.  I suspect it was off playing canasta with the Quail Doves.

We all headed further south, and on Key West. Larry took us to a shore where we enjoyed a small flock of chipper little Roseate Terns.
Three Roseate Terns, all in a row
One Tern tap danced, putting on a show
Rather far off & less entertaining Least Tern, also on the pier
And last and certainly not a Least, was a Royal Tern
The terns were fun to watch, but then, so were the lizards at this particular spot. There was a huge Iguana around 2 feet long.

There was a Curly Tail Lizard, that was pretty dinky after seeing it's giant cousin nearby. Here are two views, which show the lasso-like tail on this tropical lizard.

We did a little birding on a Key West golf course. There were numerous Black Bellied Plover on the greens, and we were delighted to see this bird, which unlike most of the other birds, was still decked out in its breeding plumage.
Beautiful Black-bellied Plover.
Me, a Bahama Mockingbird? I don't think so!
The next stop was Zachary Taylor State Park, which I vaguely remember from my 1998 trip. Larry wanted to check out the current report of a 'alleged' Bahama Mockingbird, which he correctly predicted was a cute little immature Northern Mocking bird.

There were lots of other birds around, and come to think on it, a fair number of beautiful Butterflies. Of course it was the largest, brightest ones that caught my eye. Shiny! Purdy!

Julia Heliconian Butterfly
We still had a fair amount of day ahead of us. We located the motel - the Sea Shell - and checked into our rooms. By that time, the skies had opened up, and as predicted earlier , the tropical rains came a pouring down. I don't think any of us cared much. Rain is just an opportunity to see where ever you are at, in another light. And anyway, with 3 of the four of us having come from California, pouring down rain was kind of a treat. So through the rain we all headed out for a nice dinner in a part of Key West that reminded me of New Orleans. A Great dinner was enjoyed, and there is eagerness for our trip tomorrow, when we head for the Dry Tortugas.
The outside of the restaurant which had atmosphere to spare

Two Birds, No Stone

Long-horned beetle exploring a Florida cactus flower
Black Vulture in left, Short-tailed Hawk on right.

Today began with careful scanning of the skies near the western shores of Lake Weohyakapka, we looked for a Florida specialty species - the Short-tailed Hawk.  I was surprised to learn from Larry, the raptor's normal prey are birds. I can't fault that diet, as I have to admit, I'm fond of eating birds myself.

The inset of the Short-tailed Hawk 
There were plenty of birds near the lake to be seen - the usual water birds; cormorants, herons and the like, as well as landlubber birds such as Great-crested Flycatchers and lots of Vultures. The vultures, Larry told us, were the key to our quest. Like the southwestern Zone-tailed Hawks, the Short-tails like to soar with vultures. That way, their birdy prey ignore carrion eating vultures, so overlook the birdie eating hawk. We drove around but had no success, and faced the horrid thought, maybe today wasn't our day. Then, Huzzah! Larry spotted a dark phase, Short-tail Hawk over a forested area. I was on the bird in a flash, shooting off 25 or 30 shots. Then I looked down at my camera to check my shots, and YIKES! I'd shot a string of solid black pictures. *(@)#!  At some point I'd accidentally reset the camera's control dial. Note to self: Check camera's settings at the start of every day, EVERY TIME!

The hawk, by now was farther off on the horizon, but I still managed a string of photos. The pix look out of focus, but that's because being far off. The photo shown is an inset from the upper photo. I must say, a fuzzy pic makes for a happier 'moi' than no photos at all. It took me um... 18 years, but as of today, the Short-tailed Hawk perches proudly on my life list. Go me!

Our next bird was also a 'speciality'. That means birders 'flock' to Florida just to see the species. We were off to find Florida Scrub Jay. To start, Larry took us to where the species had been easily seen in the past. Arriving at the local State Park, the friendly woman park ranger looked suitably grieved to inform us the birds were for no known reason - absent. However, she was quick to give us a map and directions to a location where the birds have been seen recently. Soon Larry was driving the van in an ever-decreasing Fibonacci swirl. Eventually we arrived at - inhale deeply prior to saying this out loud - Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park - Whew!

The park was strange, as the ground beneath our feet was sand.
Sandy parking lot at Allen Dav... er... Catfish Creek Park
Soon we were treading a park trail, which was akin to walking on a sandy beach. Between the warm air and the difficult to walk on sand, I fretted a bit, a total waste of energy, I can tell you. With everyone disappearing up the slope, I moved as fast as my fat legs could manage.
Innocent sandy, shrubby habitat at the park
On the bright side, there were butterflies flitting about, and yellow bloomed prickly pear cactus to distract from the sandy walking. It wasn't long at all before we stopped and Larry focused his trained hearing for the Jays. As earlier in the day, success didn't just pop out of the shrubbery - we had to skulk around, listening and watching. Then, Larry heard a tell tale raucous call off down the hill. He headed into the shrubbery and I headed right after him.
Prickly Pear Cactus were scattered in the brush
Hurrah! Two Florida Scrub Jays flew nearby, sitting tippy-top on trees. They called and seemed to be scouting the area out themselves.
Florida Jay calling 
A bit of a pose here...
Everyone managed pretty good views of these rare birds of Florida Scrub lands. The Jays are endangered because much of their preferred habitat - scrub - has been developed. You would think the birds not having beach front property would have spared the species, but you would be wrong.
The Jays weren't lifers for any of us, which didn't dim our pleasure at viewing the birds one danged bit. Myself, I was thrilled to finally get decent photos of them - the Jay species, not the motley group shown below.
Larry, Steve and Marian after successful Jay viewing

Monday, May 02, 2016

Land of The Yearling

Jodie and the Fawn
Tarnation, but I kin never visit south Florida's piney woods without a' thinkin' on that movie, The Yearling. I declare, this morning when I saw the piney woods, with clusters of palmetto leaves a jangled up at their feet... dagnabbit! There I go again, sinking into old timey talk, learned from having nigh onto a hundred times havin' watched, laughed and boo-hooed over The Yearling. Back to today's birding, we all got to enjoy the tall Long-leaved Pines of the Three Lakes Management Area on Manfredi's South Florida birding tour.

On our way to the first stop, Larry pulled the van over to watch a bloody beaked Crested Caracara, that was busy nibbling at some roadside offal: a smashed skunk. I'll bide a bit while you go barf.

You stopped ailing? Here are photos of the snazzy little eagle prepping to leave, after we had a nice look at it.

To infinity and beyond!

We drove on to the Three Lakes Management Area, to locate some choice birds of the Long-needled pine forest.
Entering Three Lakes Management area

Red-cockaded Woodpecker not my photo
Before long Larry found the our first sought after bird: a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The stripy thing had no interest in coming in close enough for views, or posing for photos. My long ago viewings of these woodpeckers were nice, but I took no photos. Birders Steven and Marian told of sitting in wait at a Red-cockaded Woodpecker's nesting hole, only to have the bird zip, bullet-like into its hole for the night. Birds can be so selfish. Nonetheless, my hope today was for a photo, but woe is me, t'was not to be. Still, it was great that Larry found the bird and we had got to see it.

Also enjoyed were Brown-headed Nuthatches an Eastern Bluebird and a few warblers. The road we were parked on was sandy white, pebbly, and straight through the woodlands. Larry paced up and down on the gravel, listening for and identifying the various birdsong.  He pointed out two of Bachman's Sparrows calling out their rather pretty tunes, off in the distance.  Soon as the birds weren't moving toward us, we moved toward the birds, into the pines, . I was a tad apprehensive. What if I tripped, or...? My worry served me well, as I moved carefully through the low growing palmetto, that seemed dead set on catching my shoelaces to trip me. That I kept my eyes cast down had benefits - there were some nice wildflowers to be seen below.
Wild Coreopsis
White-topped Sedge
Jury's still out on this one's ID
On the off chance I looked up, there were things there too.
Swallow-tailed Kite showing its beautiful shining cape 'with tails'
When I finally got into the thick of the forest Larry had the scope set up, which was hardly needed, as a little Bachman's Sparrow male was perched some 50 feet off.
Huzzah! My lifer Bachman's Sparrow
The little bird gave us nary a glance, sitting its limb, for maybe 15 minutes. Tt seemed happy to sit and pose all morning. I went nuts getting shots of the little brownie.
Close-ups of the Bachman's Sparrow

The sparrow sang for us a bit, and when I headed off for the road, it was still there. What a fantastic treat to watch the bird for such a nice long time. LIFER!

On our way to the next spot, Larry spotted a roadside Wild Turkey hen.
She seemed to have a few secrets...
...hopping after her in the tall grass
I can't remember ever seeing such young turkey chicks
All together I counted at least seven speckled puffballs
Mid-day we enjoyed lunch at 'Crabby Bill's', a cute restaurant where the crab cakes were judged a a tad on the bready side, but when you're hungry, you're hungry. Afterwards we walked a park behind the restaurant. I got some nice close up shots of a Limpkin trodding along the sedges. 

The Limpkin dragged a snail onto a lawn...
...a sly White Ibis slunk over to nab some of the treat

snail shell & cell phone

The evil White Ibis did get a bit of the snail, but the snail seemed large enough for everyone to get a meal off of it. Don't believe me? Check out the size of the things!

After lunch, we all headed over to Joe Overstreet Road, which was one of the places I remember best from earlier trips to Florida. Fair amount of wildlife on the road down to the lake.
A couple of Sandhill Cranes worked the roadside by a pasture
Joe Overstreet ends at Lake Kissammee 
Marian spotted some spots in the sky far off,
a pair of Snail Kites that put on something of an airshow
slightly better view of one of the Snail Kites - Damn me but they were so cool
After a few more stops to view birds, we stopped at a small park, which Larry told us often has both Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks.
Beautiful pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Black-bellies are such beautiful ducks, with their pink bills. There were quite a few of them at the park. They were lifers for Steve and Marian.
Black-bellies showing off their fine upright stance
There was an unusual lifer bird for me as well - a Muscovy Duck. For ages, the only way to get a Muscovy Duck for your life list was to go to south Texas with high hopes and pray for a wild one to cross your path. Nowadays however, as feral Muscovy Ducks are breeding and surviving in Florida, the Muscovys there count on one's ABA life list. They did the DNA testing and Florida's tame-ish Muscovys are the same as Texas' wild ones. Go figure. Yes, feels sort of like cheating to count the Florida Muscovys, but hey, I've got feral parrots on my life list so, lifer Muscovy; check!
on the left, Lifer Muscovy - check! 
There were many other birds on the lake too, such as Common Gallinules, Green Heron, domestic Mallards, Limpkins, White Ibis but for the life of us, we searched and searched and no Fulvous Whistling Ducks... until... Larry spotted one land on the far side of the lake. Time for the spotting scope.
Marian and Steve peering at way-out-on-the-lake Fulvous Whistling Duck
The persnickety Fulvous didn't come in closer for a good shot, then again, happiness is seeing a species a second time. I only recently got it as a lifer in South Texas. Nothing more satisfying that one's second look at a former lifer species; it kinda soothes your birding soul.

I got slightly better than a-poke-in-the-eye shots with my little Lumix camera through Larry's spotting scope.  The duck is the eensie blot in the lower center of the vignetted shot to the left here. Isn't the duck just the cutest?

Inset of the Fulvous

Yes, that is a genuine Fulvous Whistling Duck, and it's the best shot I've got of the species so far.  While we checked out the duck, a couple more Fulvous flew in, but they were even farther off. Oh well, we were all happy we got to add the ducks to our daily birds seen list.

Final note, there are some interesting dragonflies and butterflies in Florida - not that I care at all about insects, but look at this little darning needle.
Blue Dragonfly - that's its description and its species