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Chasing a Bird – Florida Scrub Jays

April 16th, 2015 3 comments

egretWe were on the hunt as soon as we arrived in Florida. Yes, we had other things to do – friends and relatives to visit – but I was determined that somehow or another while we were down there, I was going to get an opportunity to see and photograph a Florida Scrub Jay. Of course, it wasn’t our first trip to Florida and it certainly wasn’t the first time I had been determined to see a Scrub Jay. Just because they are considered by some to be a rare find and just because there has been a whole lot of development in the areas where Scrub Jays like to live making them increasingly hard to find and just because I had tried several times before DID NOT mean I wasn’t going to see a Scrub Jay on this trip. I was determined and that was that.

I had briefly spotted a lone Scrub Jay on the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) way back in May 2007 but I just didn’t feel that I had gotten a good long look at the bird and I certainly did not get a photograph….not even a blurry one. Since we were starting our “month of birding in Florida” at Merritt, I was optimistic that I would get to see one…at least one…and would get that prized photograph and I didn’t care if it was blurry or not….the point was to spot that bird. But, high hopes or not, as the days went by without spotting a Scrub Jay, I was beginning to give up on this bird.

spoonbill

It’s not like we didn’t see birds at Merritt. We saw plenty of birds there…in fact, more birds than anywhere else we visited. And we saw lots of “big” birds at Merritt. One of my daughters who sometimes likes to go birding with us (you know, just hanging out with the old folks meandering around looking at the birds and flowers) once told us that she only liked “BIG” birds. As she went on more birding outings with us and as she saw more and more really nice birds, the definition of “big” expanded. At first, it was all Great Blue Herons – her favorite big bird. And, of course, Great Egrets and Bald Eagles – all plenty big as birds go. But then, I asked her about hummingbirds – nothing big about a hummingbird…although they do look plenty big and fierce when they get territorial and puff up their chests and spread their tail feathers out wide to bully other hummingbirds who might be interested in getting to the sugar water feeders too. Daughter T allowed that maybe “big” could also mean birds that have big attitudes….like the tiny little hummingbird. From that point on, it was all over – absolutely any bird she liked was a “Big” bird.

avocet

She would have loved Merritt – plenty of birds there – big and small – everything from Herons to Egrets to Ibises to Roseate Spoonbills right down to American Avocets, Tree Swallows, and Woodpeckers. But no Scrub Jays.

As we traveled throughout the state, we had even gotten so lucky as to see a pair of Sandhill Cranes with babies – two beautiful long-legged colts scrabbling along behind their parents picking bugs out of the grass. But no Scrub Jays.

sandhill babies

We checked everywhere. We were nearing the end of our time – a whole month and plenty of birds but we just couldn’t find those Scrub Jays. We met other birders at different preserves and parks who told us all about where they saw Scrub Jays but we just didn’t have any luck. We ran into a couple at Rookery Bay down near Naples who had been coming to Florida in the winter for many years. They told us that Scrub Jays used to be very prevalent right there on Shell Island Road and that birders would flock (yes, pun intended…I couldn’t resist) to the area to see and feed the Scrub Jays. Yep, the birds would come out to the side of the road to be fed every evening. But the refuge managers and rangers, being wiser, stopped the practice thinking that the Jays would become way too comfortable with people. When the people stopped feeding the Jays, the jays stopped coming out to be fed and few had been seen in the area since. Nice story but it didn’t help my quest any knowing I was maybe ten years too late to see those darned birds.

So, on Sunday before we were scheduled to leave Florida (exactly three days left), we headed out from the condo where we were staying and decided to go looking for a state park I had read about but wanted to see mostly because it had a pretty cool name – Catfish Creek State Park. I love locations that have names that give you an idea of what you might see when you get there.  I do have to say though that my luck in these places is not so good. Ask me one day about Flamingo Point in the Everglades. But I keep trying and Catfish Creek sounded pretty inviting. In retrospect, they probably could have named the place something like Alligator Cypress Swamp and Scrubby Sand Trails considering what we found there…but I think maybe there is already a place called Alligator Cypress Swamp in Florida.

gator

Truth be told, the creek was a bit easier to find than the state park. We drove south on Route 27 through a quaint but totally deserted town, down through a great many orchards and farmer’s fields with lakes (or maybe ponds) here and there. We finally came to Fire Tower Road, which according to the maps, appeared to end at the state park. But we did not find a state park at the end of the road. The road ended at a gate with a big overhead sign proclaiming this place to be the FFA Training Center. This did not really stop us because we thought maybe the state park and the training center might be the same place or at least one within the other, or maybe the sign was just a mistake albeit a huge one. (Well, if you are going to make a sign that says the wrong thing for a state park, you might as well make a big one.) There was a huge lake, Lake Pierce, at the park and that was a second good reason to proceed right on through the gate…along with quite a few other cars all of a sudden.

ffaWe were a bit mystified about all those other cars that had suddenly shown up on what had been pretty much a deserted road just minutes before we got there. One minute there is no one in sight and then next minute we’re in a traffic jam of sorts right there in the middle of nowhere. So to get out of the parade and to find a nice quiet spot to have lunch, we turned down a side road leading to a boat ramp down by the lake. Wouldn’t you know it, several of the cars turned in to this dead end one lane road right behind us..…and the road was a little too narrow to allow everyone to turn around easily to go back to the main road. We managed to park off to the side enough to let everyone else turn around and get back on their way and we also managed to find a quiet spot to eat lunch all the while wondering what the heck was going on and where had all the cars come from.

Turns out the FFA Training Center was not the state park and has nothing to do with the state park which is an unimproved preserve that had only a small parking lot that we had passed on our way to the end of the road. And it turns out the Training Center has a beautiful lakeside pavilion, a lodge, cabins, camping grounds, and a large training center (of course) that is rented out for weddings and other special occasions. And the day we decided to visit, the facility was rented out for a wedding which explained where all the cars were going but does not explain why they followed us down the lane to the boat ramp. I can only guess that the wedding guests didn’t know their way and just followed us right off in the wrong direction.

After we had lunch and took a look at the boat ramp and floating pier scaring a small alligator we didn’t know was there as we stepped onto that pier, we went up to the lodge and got some information about the state park that we missed and about Catfish Creek which, it turns out, runs right through the training facility and into the lake. So, we were at least getting to see Catfish Creek which include Cypress Trees and a couple nice-sized alligators which explains why I thought maybe the name of the place should be something to do with alligators and cypress trees.

alligator

So we missed the state park on the way in but got to explore another park while managing to stay away from the aforementioned wedding festivities. And we spotted a Common Ground Dove and several Little Blue Herons and, on the way out of the facility, a Bald Eagle’s nest. There were no adult Bald Eagles to be seen but there was a small head poking up from the nest so we parked on the side of the road and contented ourselves with checking out the eaglet hoping that an adult would eventually show up. But it didn’t. We moved on down the road stopping here and there to take photos of wild flowers – Lupine I believe – and looking for the state park we’d missed on the way in.

dove

We were counting our blessings and thinking about all the wonderful birds and other creatures we had seen while in Florida and I had pretty much given up on my hopes (and steadfast determination) of seeing a Scrub Jay. It was getting late in the day but we decided to stop in at the state park for a minute anyway – maybe walk down on of the trails a piece – before heading back to Orlando for the night. In the meantime, we were creeping along in the car looking for the park and birding the hedges by the sides of the road.

I spotted a Northern Mockingbird perched on a power line and thought, “another mockingbird” following us all over the state. Of course, it’s not the same mockingbird…they are quite common in Florida and we’ve seen them everywhere….but for the past few years, we’ve imagined that it is the very same mockingbird following us around all over the country. You know there has to be a story behind this.

could it be

Some years ago, on a trip to North Carolina, my husband had decided to chop down a bunch of Pokeweeds that were growing at the edge of the field by the house. The pokeweed was heavy with purple berries and the Blue Jays and Mockingbirds and every other bird around had been having a great time eating those berries. There was one Mockingbird who had laid claim to the berry bushes and had stationed himself high up on the top of an old poplar tree snag where he could keep an eye on those berries and head off any other birds presumptuous enough to think they could get some berries too. He, the bird, was not at all happy when he, the husband, came out with a swing blade and started whaling away at all that pokeweed. The mockingbird proceeded to scold and fuss at the crazy human for a good thirty minutes or so until he, the husband, stopped cutting down the berries. That weekend, every time we walked out of the house, the bird was there to berate us for even considering cutting down those berry bushes. Since that time, we’ve been careful to leave the berry bushes alone and I am reminded that the Mockingbird network has put out a “be on the lookout (BOLO)” for the dastardly low good for nothing scoundrel who was cutting down the berry bushes. So, it was only natural, when I saw the Mockingbird, I mentally noted mockingbird and turned to my husband and told him the “boys” were following us again and he’d best keep a low profile.

But the Mockingbird looked odd sitting up there on the wire. He was in bad light against the sun and a long ways away so I thought maybe it was another bird – maybe a Loggerhead Shrike. We had mistaken a Shrike for a Mockingbird before so I figured we should slow down and check this bird out a little closer.

Lo & behold, there was a Florida Scrub Jay in all his beauty and splendor!

jay4

We stopped the car  and I jumped out to try to get a better look and a decent photograph. The lighting was terrible but the bird was cooperating and didn’t fly away. Even better, he called out to an unseen mate who answered. Then, just like that, there were birds all around us. We must have happened upon a small feeding flock that included Red Bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Titmice, and not one, not two, but six – SIX – beautiful Florida Scrub Jays. We watched and took pictures for maybe forty-five minutes. I was smack dab happy about finding these birds. I thought it might be nice at one point to maybe have a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker show up and join the group – always another rare bird to find, right? But I decided not to push my luck at this point. The Scrub Jays were good enough for me and I wasn’t gonna do any complaining about any other birds we missed along the way.

jay3

So, we never quite made it to the state park – not really. We found the parking area which made a convenient place to park off the main road. We watched the birds until they moved on to another place to feed. As we drove away, I spotted a lone sentry high at the tip top of a cypress tree by the side of the road. It wasn’t a Scrub Jay though.

mbirdNope, this time it was indeed a Northern Mockingbird….and yes, he was giving me the old stink eye as if to say, “Yes, it is me and I know you’re the one who chops down berry bushes and you can best believe I am keeping my eyes on you.  Now move on down the road and don’t even bother to look back.”

And so we did.

If you’d like to know more about Florida Scrub Jays, look here.

Time to Meander – PA

September 20th, 2014 3 comments

Susque BridgeThe distance from our home in Maryland to the Outer Banks in North Carolina is roughly three hundred miles as the crow flies or the stagecoach rolls. Driving at about sixty miles per hour (MPH), it should take the average driver just under five hours to reach Kittyhawk on a good day if you make all the lights and don’t stop too long at the Cracker Barrel for lunch. We pride ourselves on being pretty good drivers but I have to admit that, some years back, we made that trip in an unbelievable record breaking time of four and a half days. Amazing! Yep, you read correctly – we took more than four days to get to the Outer Banks from Maryland, the state right next door to North Carolina. And we weren’t even driving a horse and buggy – it was a real car with a speedometer that goes all the way up past a hundred miles an hour. (Yes, I tried to say “miles per hour” but the southern in me just couldn’t keep it up.)  No, to answer your question, we did not have any car trouble or flat tires. We just set our usual road trip pace. While others may speed down the interstate like a bat outta hell, we tend to stick to back roads and just meander along at a snail’s pace….or, more precisely, at a pace more fitting to bird watching and just looking around. And by meander, I don’t just mean we drive slowly, we also drive up and down country roads, stop at every possible scenic overlook and visit any and all parks and gardens we might pass on our way.  It sometimes takes us hours (and maybe days as in the case with the Outer Banks) to get some place so when we go any place, we have to plan ahead because you see, “time is of the essence1 with us.

Let me correct that: our traveling takes scheduling, mostly. It takes planning when we’re going somewhere by plane or train or when we need touring assistance. When we head out in the car, what we need is time. Like Harry Chapin, we keep a “watch on time”2  when we have “work to do2 or a deadline or a train to catch but otherwise, we just go where the car and the GPS takes us. On the other hand, we are not quite in sync with J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous line, “Not all those who wander are lost….”3. Quite often we are, in fact, lost and, we are lost by design.

And so it was that we headed out on the road a few weeks ago. Our “plan” was hatched when my better half volunteered to help out in building a deck at the Global Aid Network (GAiN) warehouse near Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. See, he is the better half since he actually went to work and I had no real intention of helping build that deck. I was just going along for the ride. And, since we need approximately two hours to get from our home in Maryland to the warehouse in Pennsylvania, we gave ourselves one and a half days. It worked out splendidly.

conowingoWe started out heading for Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a birding hotspot that every birder in Maryland knows about and visits at least once a year….mostly in winter. The attraction is the Bald Eagles who fish and hunt on the river at the bottom of the dam….again, mainly in the winter. The absolute best place to get information on Conowingo Dam for birding is the blog of an excellent local birding photographer, Emily Carter. I had heard many good things about Conowingo and wanted to scope it out (pun intended, of course) in summer and then maybe go back later in the year. I had heard that there weren’t many Bald Eagles there in summer but there were a goodly amount of herons and gulls that would make the birding interesting so why not? Of course, we couldn’t just get in the car and drive straight there – that would defeat the whole point of giving ourselves all that extra time to meander.

We headed up in that general but, certainly not specific, direction – that is, more or less northeast. It was a beautiful day and we blasted through Baltimore and soon got our first sign to pause. It was one of those brown ones that announce that a state park or historical marker is nearby and couldn’t be more than just a short piece off the main road. The first park-o-the-day was Gunpowder Falls State Park. Nearby was another great find – Marshy Point Nature Center. Two for the price of one – how can you beat that?

marshy pointWe headed for the Nature Center first and, as is the way with these things sometimes, the road signs led us first one way and then the other until we found ourselves very close to where we had actually turned off the main highway. It felt sort of like a Dr. Seuss story or was it The Hobbit who went “There and Back Again4? (Yep, I’m back with Tolkien). The Nature Center was lovely but we pulled in behind a school bus filled with children (pre-teens maybe). Now, there is nothing I like more than knowing young’uns are getting out into nature and learning all that they can about birds and bugs and wildflowers but, on the other hand, there is nothing I like less than trying to bird in a park filled with noisy yakking kids running around with butterfly nets and clipboards. Well……nothing except people walking their dogs and letting them off the leash to run free. Don’t get me started on this one. So, we looked around a bit and left the nature center to the kids and moved on to the state park – which was lovely and big and relatively kid-less.

gunpowder fallsThere is a small cost for entry ($3) but well worth it to visit the park and enjoy all the amenities. It is big enough (maybe 18,000 acres) to handle several busloads of kids without noticeable impact. There is a beach for swimming, meadows for playing, a boat launch for cruising and fishing, rails-to-trails hiking, and a few good habitats (waterfront, streams, marshlands, woods, meadows, etc.) for birding. But there weren’t many birds to be seen this day. We did find an area that was relatively birdy on Graces Quarters Road over by the marina and boat launch – at least it sounded that way because we heard lots of birds singing but didn’t see too many willing to show themselves to us. (DNR Guide to Gunpowder Falls State Park)

Whatever – on to the next place – lunch! I discovered that the upper parts of Maryland and lower parts of Pennsylvania are filled with silver diners. Oh, the names are different but these restaurants are all the same – big silver metal sided buildings with lots of parking and lots of menu selections inside. Lunch is good.

fishingThen it was on to Conowingo. The Dam is off the main road a bit but easy to find and easy to access. Although birders go there often, I had wondered how easy it would be to get there and if you would have to walk a good distance to get to the best spot for seeing the eagles. While it is true that you cannot get too close to the Dam itself – way too dangerous, there is a small park open to the public called the Fishing Pier with paved parking and several options for viewing the river and the birds and fishing, of course. Emily’s blog had advised that one should park by the porta potties to see the eagles fishing near an island in the river and possibly landing in the trees to eat their catch. Emily’s advice was to move up closer to the Dam to see eagles fighting and scuffling away from the trees. Her advice was good. I think the biggest problem in the winter might be standing around in the cold weather not to mention competing with the number of birders and photographers who come and take up the choice viewing spots and parking spaces…and using porta potties. In the summer, you do not have these problems except for the porta potties part. We found a few photographers set up near the “island view” but there were plenty of vacant parking spaces and several available picnic tables. We also headed up near the dam (easy walking and a short distance so we could have walked) and parked near the ramp going down to the area that seemed to be preferred by the fishermen of which there were plenty. And they seemed to be catching quite a few fish.

juvvieThere were tons of gulls and cormorants near the dam. They were easily viewed with binoculars but a more powerful scope would have been better for making precise identifications or looking for the rare ones. There were quite a few Great Blue Herons – I stopped counting at twenty-five (25). And the island was completely swamped with Black and Turkey Vultures. But there were not so many bald eagles….as expected. We did see about five (5), maybe ten (10)…..most were juveniles who didn’t have full adult plumage. But they were all beauties and put on a pretty good show – a little fishing and a little fighting.  Alas, the distances were too much for my small camera. I think that on future visits, I will take Emily’s advice and rent a camera with a big ole long lens that can spot a flea on a skunk’s back from over half a mile.

eagles adultWe stayed at Conowingo for a couple hours and then headed into Pennsylvania and up towards Lancaster. You know, I have been to Lancaster many times in the past and I thought I knew it relatively well. But it turns out; I had only passed near Lancaster visiting the Amish markets out in the country and had never gone into the city at all. Our trustworthy GPS remedied that situation right away. Everywhere we tried to go, the GPS directed us right back through Lancaster….but not the same part of Lancaster every time. I did not know there could be so many one way streets within a two block radius of a city…. outside of Washington, DC, that is. But we managed to find them all, every single one of them, along with a couple streets that were closed for construction that our dear “Road Witch” did not seem to know about. It’s a pretty neat city though with lots of row houses that reminded me very much of Baltimore and Philadelphia.

silver mineBut we did manage to find a couple parks to explore – Longs Park which was more of a family oriented recreational park with a few domestic ducks but no birds otherwise – and a great little park called the Silver Mine Park near Conestoga outside of Lancaster. This last park was big, included several different habitats that would be great for birding, walking trails, and natural water sources – creeks and ponds. But best of all, the park had benches along the walking trail. I am big on benches in parks. They allow you to rest when you get tired and to sit and let the birds find you which they are apt to do once everyone settles down and stops making so much noise. We did meet one gentleman walking there who told us that, yes, there was an old silver mine on the property and they (the parks service?) used to give tours of the mine until it got too dangerous. Now you can hike near the mine but cannot go in to explore. What with the price of silver these days, I wonder that no one has decided to sneak in and find out if any silver remains down deep in the mine and ready to be appropriated.

chickies overlookWe managed to find several other great parks that would be good for birding but we did not see too many birds. Maybe the heat had forced the birds deep into the woods but we saw very few along the areas we explored. We did take a relatively long and difficult (rocky) hike up to Chickie’s Overlook near Colombia where we were treated to great views of the Susquehanna River and a couple of little birds I think were Pine Warblers. The markings seemed good for Pine Warblers and they were certainly feeding in a couple pine trees but they just wouldn’t cooperate by being still long enough for me to get a good picture that I could check against the guides later when I got home. They did match the info in my mobile apps so I’m going with the call. These two birds were about the best sighting of the trip….okay, except for the Bald Eagles…and the Herons…and the Cormorants. Yep, they are all the “best” for me……even the Vultures.

deck buildingBut, all in all, what with all the meandering and looking around, the “best” birding I did was at the GAiN site. While the men worked on building the deck, I listened to an audio book and did a little casual birding of the fields of corn and the farmer’s house nearby. I saw mostly yard birds – nothing rare or unusual – but the birds I saw were entertaining and beautiful as always.  And, that’s enough for me on any given day. The Blue Jays and Cardinals and Chickadees reminded me of the birds at home – waiting patiently for us to return from our meandering and head on back down the road to home and the important stuff – like keeping those feeders full of good black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and safflower.

mallard hybrid

The full quote from J.R.R. Tolkien:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”3

References:

  1. Anonymous phrase. [I looked it up but no clear person or source could be identified for this commonly used phrase.]
  2. “Let Time Go Lightly” (Lyrics); Greatest Stories Live (Album); Harry Chapin; 1976; Elektra. [Youtube Audio/Video Link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gvhkr3v8iU ]
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; July 29, 1954.
  4. The Hobbit There and Back Again; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; September 21, 1937

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