Category Archives: Flights

Costa RIca

Marie and I vacationed in Costa Rica a couple weeks ago with two good friends, and I thought I’d share some of the experiences here. I know some of the local birders have stayed at the same Lodge we did, and others have either stayed in other locations or haven’t yet been to the country. Regardless, I’d love to hear any comments or feedback and encourage folks to use the comments section below to share any other great lodges or locations to bird in the country.

We left on a Friday afternoon and got a fantastic round-trip rate on Delta (14,000 Skymiles roundtrip per person), but it meant not arriving until around 9:30PM local time. We decided to stay at the San Jose Marriott the first night, which was a wonderful hotel and property.

Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen
View of the Marriott San Jose property from our balcony.

We did some light birding the next morning before heading out to La Fortuna and the Arenal Observatory Lodge. I tallied 18 species at the Marriott, including 10 life birds. My favorite of these was probably the Yellow-headed Caracara.

Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen
Marriott San Jose , Costa Rica.

The drive to Arenal is no joke…the roads are two-lane most of the way and pretty “serpentine”. We stopped in La Fortuna for lunch, where we also got our first real view of the Arenal Volcano.

La Fortuna and Volcan Arenal. Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano from La Fortuna Park.

It was about another 30 minute drive from La Fortuna to the Arenal Lodge, where we would spend the remainder of our 4 nights. I’ll include a few pictures of the Lodge here, but really encourage you to visit my Flickr album if you want to see even more.

View of Arenal Lake from the deck at Arenal Observatory Lodge. Costa Rica.
View of Lake Arenal from the observation deck. Restaurant at left.

To the right of the image above is the fruit feeder station, which has the volcano as a backdrop. You could stand there for hours and be entertained and “wowed” by the stream of birds that regularly visit the feeder: Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Golden-hooded Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Montezuma Oropendola, Bananaquit, Buff-throated Saltator, Brown Jay, Black-cowled Oriole, Melodious Blackbird, and Clay-colored Sparrow (to name a few).

Great Curassow (male). Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Great Curassow (male). Arenal Observatory Lodge, feeder area.

Being at eye-level this close to the birds allows you to really capture some great images, and see details that you might not normally see in terms of plumage and interactions. For example, you may not easily see the brilliant yellow underwings of the honeycreepers otherwise.

Red-legged Honeycreepers (males). Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Red-Legged Honeycreepers. Arenal Observatory Lodge, feeder area.

Another view from the deck is below; notice the fruit feeder to the right….this gives you an idea of how close you can get to these birds. Might I also mention that the bar is right behind you, and they serve wonderful hand-mixed cocktails and have a hearty selection of bottled craft beer. I was very pleasantly surprised with the selection.

View of Arenal Volcano from the deck at Arenal Observatory Lodge. Costa Rica.
Arenal Observatory Lodge. Deck, feeder at right. Arenal Volcano in background.

The birds often bickered over the selection of fruit…

Black-cowled Oriole and Buff-throated Saltator interaction. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Black-cowled Oriole and Buff-throated Saltator. The Saltator “won” this conflict.

I was asked what my top 5 species were from the trip, and it’s almost impossible to say, but I can tell you that the Golden-hooded Tanagers are in the top 5 somewhere.

Golden-hooded Tanager and Red-legged Honeycreeper. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Golden-hooded Tanagers. Arenal Observatory Lodge.

When you finally pull yourself away from the observation deck, you’ll pass right by a nesting Streak-headed Woodcreeper on your way to the gardens.

Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Arenal Observatory Lodge.

The gardens below are at a intersection roughly between the “frog pond” trail and rainforest and a path leading to the waterfall and some farmland.

Costa Rica - April 2019 (Arenal Observatory Lodge)
Arenal Observatory Lodge gardens. Arenal Volcano in background.

The gardens host a large colony of nesting Montezuma Oropendolas, and is otherwise rife with birds. On several visits over the week, the following species were very regular there: Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Long-tailed Tyrant, Social Flycatcher, Gray-capped Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Piratic Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Band-backed Wren, Black-cowled Oriole, Bananaquit, Variable Seedeater, White-tipped Dove, Clay-colored Thrush, Keel-billed Toucan, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and White-necked Jacobin. Other extremely notable birds for me here were a single Gartered Trogon and Common Tody-Flycatcher.

Social Flycatcher. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Social Flycatcher. Arenal Observatory Lodge gardens.
White-necked Jacobin. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
White-necked Jacobin. Arenal Observatory Lodge gardens.

Just past the gardens begins some pasture, where we saw Variable Seedeaters and Morelet’s Seedeaters

Costa Rica - April 2019 (Arenal Observatory Lodge)
Edge of the garden, pasture beyond.

The area between the gardens and the waterfall was good for Yellow-throated Toucan, Clay-colored Thrush, and Buff-rumped Warblers in particular.

Danta Waterfall. Costa Rica - April 2019 (Arenal Observatory  Lodge).
Danta Waterfall. Arenal Observatory Lodge property.

The property also has other wildlife, including Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, and Coatimundi (“Coati”). I photographed the Spider Monkey below from my back patio.

Costa Rica Spider Monkey. Arenal Observatory Lodge,  Taken from my room's back porch (room 31).
Spider Monkey. Arenal Observatory Lodge.

We made a couple afternoon jaunts outside of the Arenal park, one to Mistico Hanging Bridges park, where we saw a Sloth and a Rufous-tailed Jacamar! Another day, Marie and I went ziplining at Arenal Ecoglide, I’d definitely recommend the experience. Photos here if you’re interested.

As for the lodge, I can’t say enough how great it is, and would recommend to anyone interested in a relaxing, natural vacation. The room was clean and very spacious, with great views of the volcano (we stayed in a “junior suite”, which is very reasonably priced). The rooms are not air-conditioned (you don’t need it, they have high powered ceiling fans, which is plenty) and don’t have a TV, but do have good wi-fi. Our room had a mud room, wet bar area with a dorm fridge, and a large sofa. It also had a large covered front porch and large tiled, covered back patio.

View from our back patio of Volcan Arenal. Costa Rica - April 2019 (Arenal Observatory Lodge).
View of Arenal Volcano from our back porch.

I sat on the back porch in the evenings, sipping on a cold one (or two), and had both species of monkeys, frequent Coati visits, and a wonderful parade of birds, including Black-striped Sparrow, Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, Great Curassows, Hepatic Tanager, Bananaquit, House Wren, Montezuma Oropendola, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green-fronted Lancebill, Brown Violetear, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

Crowned Woodnymph. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Crowned Woodnymph. Arenal Observatory Lodge, Unit 31. I had to set my cerveza down for a minute to capture this bird’s portrait. It insisted.

There’s really a whole lot more to say, but I’ll cut this a short and leave you with another Top 5 bird… the Great Potoo!

Great Potoo. Arenal Observatory Lodge. Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Great Potoo. Arenal Observatory Lodge.

Eastport is Wasted

On Saturday, April 13th, I visited Eastport Wastelands for the first time in a number of months. They’ve been clearing the north side of the property for some time now (obliterating it is more like it), and now they’ve begun the south end of the property as well.

Eastport Wastelands. Jacksonville,  FL
Eastport Wastelands. 13 April 2019.

The photo above depicts what used to be very dense scrub / Florida sandhill habitat. Off to the left, you can see the low lying swamp that is home to many nesting waders, Wood Ducks, Orchard Orioles, and even Purple Gallinule.

Eastport Wastelands. Jacksonville,  FL.
Eastport Wastelands Swamp. 13 April 2019.

The shot above is a better view of the swamp, which on this visit had a singing Orchard Oriole, many Red-winged Blackbirds defending territory, a nesting Green Heron, and no less than six Anhingas on nests. I’m not sure what they have planned here, but if it’s an extension of the work they’ve done on the other side of the property, they’ll be digging out all this dirt to sell it off in the near future. There is no telling what they did to the gopher tortoises throughout this area but I suspect they just plowed them over and buried them.

On a lighter note, I also visited Huguenot Memorial Park that day, where I enjoyed very active Wilson’s Plovers, a couple Whimbrel, and several Willet.

Wilson's Plover. Huguenot Memorial Park. Jacksonville, FL
Wilson’s Plover. Huguenot Memorial Park. 13 Apr 2019.

The Willet (an “Eastern”subspecies) was flying around high in the air in wide, sweeping circles, constantly calling and chittering. It is quite a courtship display if you’ve never had occasion to see it.

(Eastern) Willet. Display / Courtship flight. Huguenot Memorial Park. Jacksonville, FL
(Eastern) Willet. Courtship display. Huguenot Memorial Park. 13 Apr 2019.

If you bird at Huguenot, you know how you can often see aircraft from NAS Mayport. I saw these two helicopters coming and jacked up the shutter speed to capture a couple of images. Now one might wonder why they insist on flying at 200 feet above a known gull and shorebird nesting colony, but I digress.

NAS Mayport - (Black Tail) USN Helicopter
“Black-tailed Helicopter”. Huguenot Memorial Park. 13 Apr 2019.

Notice the black tail on the helicopter above; the one below has a red tail. I couldn’t find the “Red-tailed”, nor the “Black-tailed” form on my eBird checklist, so left them both off.

NAS Mayport - (Red Tail) USN Helicopter
The rare “Red-tailed Helo”. Huguenot Memorial Park. 13 Apr 2019.

Arizona Trip – March 2019

I rarely post anything here that’s not about the local area (specifically Duval County), but I just got back from another wonderful trip to Arizona and wanted to share. This work trip was somewhere around my 35th visit to Arizona over the last twelve years and when I go, I really look forward to padding an extra day or two on so I can hit the outdoors and get some birding in.

When I go, I usually try to target a rarity or new life bird to seek out. These “lifer” targets are pretty scarce for me at this point, so I decided to try (again, for probably the 5th time) for the Rose-throated Becards in Tubac. Tubac is about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Tucson, and just south of the infamous Green Valley area by about 20 minutes. Although Tubac is still some 60 km or so north of the Nogales/Mexico border, there is a border patrol checkpoint heading north back along I-19 after visiting that area; don’t be alarmed, they are quick and efficient, and I’ve never even been asked to show ID.

The Becards have been reported sporadically over the years and I’ve dipped on them a number of times, but was hopeful since they’ve nested along the De Anza trail the last few springs. Birding the De Anza trail is wonderful, but can be frustrating since it’s a) so long, and b) a little confusing in terms of geography….the sections of the trail where the Becards and the Sinaloa Wren have nested are in distinctly different parts, and I’ve come to find that there actually isn’t just “one” trail. You get onto the trail, and it quickly becomes a spiderweb of unmarked trails on both sides of the river, extending for miles.

De Anza Trail. Tubac, Arizona. March 2019. Trail to Rose-throated Becard nesting spot.
De Anza Trail. Bridge Road. Tubac, AZ

The picture above is the mesquite “tunnel” at this particular trail head near bridge road, and it quickly dips down into the wooded ravine. After getting disoriented and crossing a flooded stream back and forth four times, I fortunately ran into a very nice lady along the way and she pointed me in the direction of the nest where two Becards had been reported in the weeks leading to my visit. (She also tipped me off to Canoa Ranch which was hosting Lawrence’s Goldfinches, more on that later). I arrived at the nest spot, which is in a wonderfully thick riparian area, dense with mesquite, willow, cottonwoods, and I believe some sort of sycamores.

I found the nest, along with several other birders, but alas I never saw the Becards despite hanging out for a couple of hours. I’m now calling them Rose-throated Bastards until I finally see one. It wasn’t a waste of time though, as I always enjoy seeing species we don’t see here on the east coast of Florida; birds I observed at this location include Hepatic Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole, Black Phoebe, Phainopepla, Inca Dove, Red-naped Sapsucker,Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Bridled Titmouse, and more.

Rose-throated Becard nest. De Anza trail, Tubac, Arizona. 2 Mar 2019.

It was dark by the time I got to my room back in Tucson, and I started out before sunrise again the next morning (Sunday). My destination was Florida Canyon’s parking area, followed by stops back along Box Canyon Road and then Madera Canyon.

Florida wash leading to Florida Canyon. Arizona. March 2019.
Box Canyon Road leading to Florida Wash. Green Valley, AZ.

Box Canyon Road leading to Florida Canyon (pronounced “Flor-EEE-da”, pictured above) is not only gorgeous just after dawn, but is usually rife with western sparrows, meadowlarks, and other small passerines like Verdin. I stopped for a few minutes and photographed Black-chinned and Black-throated Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, and a smattering of other birds (my checklist).

Black-throated Sparrow. Box Canyon Road. Arizona. 3 Mar 2019.

Black-throated Sparrows (above) are common and conspicuous in this area and are often the easiest species to find. I’ve found them to be cooperative, perching in the open for extended views.

Black-chinned Sparrow. Box Canyon Road. AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

Black-chinned Sparrows, however, I’ve found to be much more difficult to see. Based on eBird data, they’re fairly common and widespread, but I will tell you it took me a very long time to find one. I feel like I must have been overlooking them or something for years.

Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed). 3 Mar 2019.

Dark-eyed Junco is fairly abundant, and I have found several of the various sub-species over the years around the area. The only Yellow-eyed Junco I’ve seen out this way was up the mountain in Madera several years ago.

Florida Canyon. Trail head, uncrossable without getting wet!  Arizona. March 2019.
Florida Canyon parking area and Trailhead.

I made it to the parking lot of Florida Canyon (home to the infamous Rufous-capped Warblers and Black-capped Gnatcatchers), and found the stream (above) to be full and as wide as I’ve ever seen it. I couldn’t cross it without getting wet or taking off my shoes, and I didn’t need the warblers anymore (got ’em in 2014 here), so I turned around and headed to Madera.

The drive into Madera Canyon is a little longer than you’d expect, and you subtlety gain elevation driving to Proctor Road (my first stop).

Road leading to Madera Canyon. Arizona. March 2019.
Heading into Madera Canyon. This is about 1 mile short of Proctor Road.

Proctor Road is a good place to use the bathroom, pay for your day’s pass to the canyon ($5, self pay, cash only, no change given). I missed the White-throated Thrush here by a couple weeks, but was able to enjoy several other species like Say’s Phoebe and Lincoln’s Sparrow

Say’s Phoebe. Proctor Road parking lot. Madera Canyon, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I neglected to take any scenic shots this time, so will include the image of me below, from a visit in December 2009. The vast overlook of the valley behind me is from the parking area; it is in this area where you would find the Buff-collared Nightjars, Montezuma Quail, etc. a little later in the spring or early summer.

Me. Proctor Road area. December 2009.

The area had gotten quite a bit of rain and snow in the two weeks leading up to my visit, and the snow melt running off the mountain made the creeks run as full as I’ve ever seen them.

Madera Canyon. Proctor Road Area. Arizona. March 2019.
Proctor Road area. Snow melt / run off. Madera Canyon, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I headed on up the canyon, making brief stops at Whitehouse Picnic Area and the world famous Santa Rita Lodge. I watched the feeders for about a half hour, where there wasn’t much variety and zero hummingbirds. I picked up some nice trip birds though, like Acorn Woodpecker, Pine Siskin, Wild Turkey, Mexican Jay, and Lesser Goldfinch. (Checklist)

Mexican Jay. Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I spent another couple hours in the Canyon and decided to head just a little bit south to Canoa Ranch Conservation Park in Pima County; this is where the lady the previous day tipped me to for the “other” goldfinch. I’ve never birded this place, and it’s basically an artificial pond in the middle of nothing. I snapped a few images of ducks and birded the area just along the entrance to the park. I quickly found several Lark Sparrows and – bingo – the Lawrence’s Goldfinches! (Checklist)

Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Canoa Ranch. Green Valley, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

It was mid-afternoon and I needed to start heading towards Phoenix as I had work the next day. I stopped at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Tucson, which turned out to be one day before a prescribed burn. Nothing terribly exciting here this visit, but always a pleasant place to bird. (checklist)

Sweetwater wetlands park. Tucson, Arizona. March 2019. 2 days before prescribed burn.
Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

Two Verdin were building a nest in the parking lot.

Verdin on the nest. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

The highlight was watching this Greater Roadrunner hunt and eat lunch in the parking lot.

Greater Roadrunner. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

I took the wide, long way back to Phoenix by visiting Baseline Road area. I couldn’t figure out how to look for the Ruddy Ground Doves without trespassing, so ended up at the “Thrasher Spot” for a few minutes. No Le Conte’s today, but I did see several Bendire’s Thrashers.

Bendire’s Thrasher. Salome Highway and Baseline Road. AZ. 3 Mar 2019.

The area is still mostly undeveloped, but there is a huge poultry farm nearby that is new since my last visit. It’s probably only a matter of time before this special spot is gone.

The infamous "Thrasher spot". Salome Highway and Baseline Road. Maricopa County, Arizona. West of Phoenix.  March 2019.
The “Thrasher Spot”. Salome Highway and Baseline Road. Az. 3 Mar 2019.

On my way back to the airport later in the week, I stopped at El Rio Open Space Preserve, which is in Marana just outside of Tucson. I’ve never birded here, but thanks to Andrew Core’s extensive eBirding of this area it caught my attention. I only had a little bit of time, but wow – what a great place. I’ll definitely be back. (Checklist)

El Rio Preserve. Town of Marana, outside of Tucson, Arizona. March 2019.
El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019
El Rio Preserve. Town of Marana, outside of Tucson, Arizona. March 2019.
View from the backside of El Rio Open Space Preserve.

I managed a few decent shots here, one of the Lesser Goldfinch below –

Lesser Goldfinch. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.
  • and of Northern Rough-winged Swallow.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

Anna’s Hummingbirds were fairly cooperative…

Anna’s Hummingbird. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

…although this Lincoln’s Sparrow really wasn’t. He posed long enough for me to get this overexposed shot before I could adjust my settings.

Lincoln’s Sparrow. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

This Cooper’s Hawk was the most obliging raptor I’ve ever observed. It didn’t give a damn about me and actually seemed to follow me down the trail insisting I take more photos. I shot about 100 images.

Cooper’s Hawk. El Rio Open Space Preserve. Marana, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

I had one more chance at Sweetwater Wetlands on the way to my flight, and wanted to see it after the burn.

Sweetwater Wetlands apark.  Tucson, Arizona. March 2019. 3 days after prescribed burn.
Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. After the prescribed burn. 7 Mar 2019.

The burn allowed for excellent viewing of some ducks and three Sora.

Sora. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal. Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Tucson, AZ. 7 Mar 2019.

So that’s it – a whirlwind trip to Arizona. I’ve been fortunate to bird this area quite heavily, and have never needed to invest in a guide (although one could be very handy). I’m no expert, but if you would like any advice or perspective on planning a visit to this area of the country, I’m always happy to lend whatever knowledge I have.

Western Kingbird at Imeson.

This morning I decided to head to Imeson Center and try to poke around some of the dirt bike trails closer to Heckscher Drive, with the main purpose of trying to get access to Turner Pond. Turner Pond is a huge freshwater pond that historically has held breeding Purple Gallinules and Least Bitterns, but it’s almost unapproachable due to the overgrowth.

I arrived around 8AM and as I walked back into the woods, I encountered hundreds upon hundreds of American Robins all over the ground and roosting in the smaller trees.

American Robin, Imeson Center. Jacksonville, Florida, 10 Feb 2019.

Mixed in with the Robins were a few small flocks of Cedar Waxwings and a group of around 300 Red-winged Blackbirds. I finally made it to the edge of Turner Pond, climbed a tree, and was afforded a pretty decent view.

Turner Pond. Jacksonville,  FL.
Turner Pond at Imeson Center.

I headed back to the truck and starting driving towards the small fenced pond at the warehouse when I came across a Western Kingbird. They’re an annual but fairly uncommon winter visitor in Duval County, and this is the third one I’ve found in Jacksonville this winter season (the other two at M&M Dairy in December).

Western Kingbird. Imeson Center. 10 Feb 2019.

I decided to bird the area on the other side of Heckscher Drive directly across from Imeson – this is an small wedge of old industrial space between Heckscher and the salt marsh, with a rail road track running down the middle. I found a lot of small landbirds there, including Swamp, Song, Savannah, and Vesper Sparrow. I also notched a Marsh Wren and some other “year birds”. There is a lot of access to cord grass and the marshes over there, so I’ll definitely be back early one morning to poke around for marsh sparrows.

All in all, a good morning – over 10,000 fitbit steps in the visit, over 55 species, and I didn’t encounter a single other human. My kind of relaxinig morning!

Thus far in January…

The Snow Goose that Marie and I found the last week of December attracted quite a bit of attention the first week of January, and I hate to think how much gas was consumed by everyone driving to the northside of Jacksonville for no other reason than to tick a year bird. Regardless, that bird lingered through at least the first week of the month, as did other notable rarities like the Smooth-billed Ani at Little Talbot Island State Park (present since December 3rd), the Red-necked Grebe (present since January 1st), and the Purple Sandpipers at Huguenot (present since early December).

The Western Kingbirds I found around Christmas stayed at M&M Dairy, but other than that no terribly unusual birds have been recorded yet in January. Roseate Spoonbills are pretty uncommon in winter and can be hard to find, but there have been a small group hanging out on the pond in my neighborhood.

This morning I birded Huguenot Memorial Park for several hours and saw pretty much everything you’d expect there this time of year except a Piping Plover or the Oystercatchers. They’re around, but I just missed them. The Purple Sandpiper(s) were not present at 8AM (the tide was out), but when I checked the area around the jetties around 11AM, I found one among the Turnstones.

Purple Sandpiper. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

While I was looking at the Red-necked Grebe, I met Tom R. and had a pleasant conversation. We’ve known of each other through email and such over the years, but had never met in person. Nice to make the connection.

Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019

I drove up the beach and around the north end of the park, and would definitely recommend four wheel drive out there – the sand is soft and powdery. Groups of shorebirds were roosting on the mudflat, including a handful of Wilson’s Plovers. I snapped this Black-bellied Plover as it cruised by the truck.

Black-bellied Plover. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

On the way back in, I parked at the nature center and walked up family beach, where I met another pair of familiar names – Janet and Gary L. from Orlando. Again, nice to make the personal connection and put faces to names. The grebe was showing pretty well at that point.

Ring-billed Gull. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

The new road construction is progressing pretty well through the park, and they’ve cut the path right through the dunes where it’ll run “behind” the playground. I checked the small patch of remaining scrub there and had a number of birds including two White-crowned Sparrows, Gray Catbirds, Swamp and Song Sparrows, and Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. This new path for the road may actually open up a couple new birding options at Huguenot, as it will give us a chance to get closer to the interior coastal scrub.

Duval Top 10 – 2018

It’s almost the end of the year, and I thought I’d reflect back on the top 10 birds I recorded in Duval County this past year. Considering the fact that I spent 120 nights in hotels outside of Florida this year, I feel really good about this list of birds I was fortunate to see and photograph. I’ll preface this list by saying the criteria is birds I was able to photograph – so no Swainson’s Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, or Warbling Vireo on the list. I also much prefer to find birds on my own versus chasing someone else’s, so that affects the order. There are 4 honorable mentions (rather than make a top 14 list, that’s my way of sneaking in 4 more birds. :))

Honorable mention: Grasshopper Sparrow (I found four in three different locations this year, photographed all of them), Western Kingbird (I found one on 23 Dec and two on 30 Dec), Snow Goose (I found two in two locations, one blue and one white), and Purple Sandpiper ( a high count of three on 9 December, photographed).

Purple Sandpiper, Huguenot Memorial Park (18 Feb 2018)

Without further ado, here is my top 10, in descending order:

10. Western Tanager. 23 Feb 2018. Western Tanagers are pretty much annual in the area each winter, most often coming to feeders. That is the case here, where I was invited over to view one coming to a feeder in Mandarin. It was a spectacular bird and would be higher on the list but for two reasons – I didn’t find it, and it was a stakeout “feeder” bird. This was my fourth time seeing the species in Jacksonville.

Western
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana. 23 Feb 2018.

9. Glaucous Gull. 3 Feb 2018. I always like seeing “Glauczilla”, and in February I found my 11th in Duval County (I found a 12th in November). The cool thing about both of these observations is that Marie and I saw them each together.

Glaucous Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

8. Iceland Gull. 3 Feb 2018. My 13th observation in Duval County, but many of those 13 were of the same lingering bird. I didn’t really realize it, but I hadn’t seen one here in 4 years prior to Marie and I finding this bird in the same flock as the Glaucous (above). This bird was a “one day wonder” and remains the only Iceland reported in NE Florida this year, and the first since 2014.

Iceland Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

7. Red-breasted Nuthatch. 27 October. No, you KNOW the rest of this list is going to be good if a Red-breasted Nuthatch comes in at number seven! I found this bird at Huguenot Memorial Park of all places, on a great morning I spent out shooting with my cousin Tom. This bird followed us along the parking lot and we finally had to walk away from it. This was my first in the county since 2013.

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Huguenot Memorial Park. 27 Oct 2018.

6. Snow Bunting. 25 November. WHAT? How can a freaking SNOW BUNTING be number 6? Wait and see. This is a really tough call, actually, especially considering this is the first State record in over 4 years. It probably should be ranked higher, but it falls at number 6 because I’ve seen them several times previously in the county. I found this bird at Huguenot the morning following the evening that I saw a Lapland Longspur. This bird sat for a minute, flew off, and never was seen again.

Snow Bunting. 25 Nov 2018. Huguenot Memorial Park, Jacksonville, FL.

5. Long-tailed Duck. 27 January. This is a bird that I have been waiting a long time to see here. Lesley found this bird at the Wal-Mart pond and I was able to see it that same afternoon. Unfortunately, eager birders got too close to it and it moved across the street and eventually left after a few more days of harassment.

Long-tailed Duck, Jacksonville, FL (27 January 2018)

4. Brant. 12 March. I feel a little dirty chasing this bird considering who found it, but since it was the first county record in several decades I kind of had to. This bird lingered behind the Sisters Creek Marina for a couple weeks.

Brant. 18 Mar 2018. Jacksonville, Florida

3. Smooth-billed Ani. 9 December. This bird was reported by an out-of-towner (like so many rarities from Little Talbot Island State Park), and has remained through at least 30 December. Marie and I were in Las Vegas when it was reported, and I was really afraid it’d be gone when we got back 5 days later because of the birder behavior I was hearing about. There has been rampant harassment using playback and trampling the dunes to see this bird, and it’s the final straw for me…I have suppressed my eBird rare bird alerts, and on top of that will refrain from providing any specific location details on rare birds I might find. There are about 3 people inside the circle of trust on that right now because I’ve been terribly disappointed in the behaviors of local birders I’ve know for years. Anyway, this is an incredible find and the first record here since the 60’s.

Smooth-billed Ani. Little Talbot Island SP. 9 Dec 2018.

2. Ash-throated Flycatcher. 29 December. Not as rare as some of the ones above, but this one ranks higher because Marie and I found it together, and it’s honestly even a little more special because to-date, no one else has seen it. It’s roughly the 5th county report and only the 3rd county record.

Ash-throated Flycatcher. 29 December. Little Talbot Island SP.

1.Lapland Longspur. 24 November. This is number one for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it’s been such a target bird for me for so many years. I have purposefully been looking for this species at Huguenot every winter since at least 2005, and have put in countless hours working the edge of the dunes searching for one. This evening, I was walking the perimeter and came across the bird feeding with Ruddy Turnstones. I was lucky enough to see it again the following morning for extended looks.

Lapland Longspur. 25 Nov 2018. Huguenot Memorial Park.

So that’s it. I somehow managed 5 new county birds this year, when it took 3 years to get the previous 5. Things slow down considerably around 299, so I’m tickled with notching 5 more this year. I have a few nemesis birds left, and the most likely candidates for me to add to my Duval list in 2019 are Magnificent Frigatebird, Surf Scoter, Broad-winged Hawk, and American Golden-Plover. Here’s to hoping I’m right!

Western Kingbird. Smooth-billed Ani.

This morning Roger was in town and picked me up at 8AM. We decided to head for Sheffield Regional Park over Huguenot Park, and along the way we started to pass by (what is left of) M&M Dairy. After lamenting what was such a great place to bird, we realized the end by the new warehouse was vacant and seemed to be open for access. We parked and decided to bird M&M.

We had a fantastic couple of hours out there, tallying just over 50 species while walking all over the fields for the first time in probably ten years together. (Back “in the day” we could walk all over the pastures with permission, not so much in recent years).

As we turned the first corner of the berm (reminiscent of the “Masters Tract” in St. Johns County), we encountered groups of birds including a “greenie” Painted Bunting, Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, and a Pileated Woodpecker. As we turned the next corner, I saw a largish yellow bird fly off and land ahead of us…Western Kingbird!

Western Kingbird. M&M Dairy.

This particular Kingbird was a little more sketchy than most, so didn’t allow for very good pictures. This same area was hopping though, with an adult male Painted Bunting, Savannah and Chipping Sparrows, and a single American Pipit.

Savannah Sparrow. M&M Dairy

We continued slogging through the fields and ended up by the marshy area where Roger found a single Rusty Blackbird.

Chipping Sparrow. M&M Dairy.

Roger had to jet, so I headed to Little Talbot in search of the Smooth-billed Ani. Shortly after arriving, I met Steve and Liz from North Carolina and struck up a great conversation. They were traveling down through Florida and stopped off to see the Ani, which we found within 5 minutes behind the restroom pavilion at lot 2. The bird was very active, and we watched as it hawked a flying grasshopper in mid air, then landed with it in it’s mouth. After eating it, it seemed to be very content and we watched it for 15-20 minutes at very close distance. It seemed comfortable with us, which is probably because we weren’t calling it via recording and creeping up on us. The light was HARSH, but I managed a few shots that are pretty decent. These are all at 500mm with no crop.

Power Plant Implosion

Note: If you want to just jump to the video of the implosion, click here!

I moved to Jacksonville in 1981 before the St. Johns River Power Plant’s pair of 462 foot tall cooling towers were constructed, but I honestly have a hard time remembering the Jacksonville area skyline without them in the landscape. For the last 17 years, Marie and I have lived off Heckscher Drive so we’ve driven right by them thousands of times and they became a familiar, if not comforting, sight to us.

SJRPP Towers – June 2018. Photo by Marie Dailey

How can massive dull structures like that be “comforting”, you ask? Well, for one thing Marie and I have done an awful lot of kayaking in the marshes of the Timucuan Preserve, and it can be easy to get disoriented out there in the little finger creeks where the marsh grass is twice as high as you are sitting down in the kayak. We came to rely on the towers to be our “north star” of sorts and getting eyes on them was a perfect way to re-orient oneself to where you’re heading.

Our north star(s). March 2006.

In the image from 2006 above, you can see how even at a great distance the towers were about the only landmark when out on the waters of the Timucuan Preserve. We could always see them anywhere from downtown to Cedar Point to Fort George Island to the Intracoastal waterway.

December 23, 2005. Cooling towers selfie.

I came to love the structures so much that I even took a rare selfie back in December 2005 from my kayak before the term “selfie” was even a thing!

Here’s another tranquil image from the water, circa 2005.

Towers and the kayak. Circa 2005.

Last year when I got my new 500mm lens, I swung by the plant to take some architectural photos and would like to share the one below because it’s a level of detail most people were not able to see (without at least looking through binoculars). Look at the little ladder/landing to the top right of the image along the rim; that should give you some perspective as to how massive these towers were. Picture yourself standing there and how small you’d look in this image!

Top of the SJRPP Tower. Winter 2017.

So flash forward to yesterday morning, where we obtained VIP passes to be on the power plant property along with the plant retirees who spent their careers working at this great facility. It was a beautiful morning and Marie captured a few last shots before the demolition.

SJRPP Towers. 16 June 2018.

SJRPP Tower. 16 June 2018.

The actual demolition was a “bucket list” experience and I can’t really describe the full-body percussion experienced when the dynamite exploded. The closest I think I’ve felt something similar was at a Deftones concert years ago in a small club where the bass player opened the show with a protracted “brown note”. 🙂

Yes, this brief post is nostalgic, and no, it doesn’t contain any information about birds even though this is a website about birds – but I wanted to share some images and thoughts about the end of this era. Our landscape has changed. I think I’ll go have a cookie.

SJRPP Cookie and Pass. 17 June 2018.

 

Stilt Sandpipers are back at Spoonbill Pond

Each spring I can’t wait until mid-April because that means “shorebirds” to me. Most birders seem to really love getting into the woods and looking for migrant songbirds and warblers in particular – and don’t get me wrong, I love that too – but shorebirds is what really gets me going. I got in from Minnesota very late Friday night but couldn’t wait to get to Spoonbill Pond the next morning to start checking for shorebird arrivals. They didn’t disappoint and I had 15 species of shorebirds at the location.

Of course the best shorebird I found yesterday was the region’s first Stilt Sandpiper this year. This is a locally rare species that is almost completely unreported in Nassau County to the north and usually only has scattered reports from St. John’s County to the south (most from Six Mile Landing). In Duval County, Spoonbill Pond is really the only publicly accessible place to even try looking for them, and then it is usually from a distance in poor light. On top of that, they’re usually mixed in with Dowitchers (mostly Long-billed there now) and can be very difficult to detect.

The series of images below are intended to help give you an idea of what you might see and how to pick them out based on some subtle differences. In Figure 1 below, the Stilt Sandpiper is in the foreground and a basic plumaged Dowitcher is in the background. Notice the posture of the Stilt; the body is tipped forward at a sharper angle, while the Dowitcher is more even-keeled horizontally. While the basic shape and contours seem very similar, the Stilt is a little smaller and more slender. The rusty ‘cheek patch’ just behind the eye is a really nice clue too, but depending on the lighting you may not be able to detect that.

Fig.1 – Stilt Sandpiper feeding

In Figure 2 below, you see a Stilt (left) with an alternate plumaged Dowitcher (right). What I see here is the difference in the “tilt” again – the Stilt is really leaning forward at a much sharper angle – and the difference in the barring along the flanks. The Dowitcher is much richer in color and you can thus rule out Stilt Sandpiper for that bird. While this image only has one Dowitcher, in the field you’ll see dozens of them together so if you’re picking through them you know you can discard anything that color as being a Stilt Sandpiper.

Fig.2 – Stilt Sandpiper and Dowitcher

In Figure 3, there is again one of each species – take a moment to guess which is which, and the answer is below.

Fig. 3 – Crossed shorebirds

Hopefully for figure 3 you were able to determine that the Stilt is the bird on the left, facing right – and the Dowitcher is the bird on the right, facing left. The primary difference here is that coloration – the Stilt is heavily barred in the flanks, but lacks the rich orange of the dowitcher.

Fig. 4 – Stilt and Dow

Figure 4 above completes the sequence from Figure 3, so you can now see different field marks confirming the identity. The Stilt is continuing its way right and has a medium length, slightly drooping bill, the rusty “cheek patch” and rusty cap. The Dowitcher has a much heavier and longer bill, uniform orange from chest to tail, and less distinguished “eyebrow”. Unfortunately this image is not as crisp as I’d like but it’s pretty heavily cropped.

Other than the excitement of shorebirds, it has been the best year for migrating Scarlet Tanagers in recent memory; in fact I can’t remember a spring here in which there were as many reports from all over the county, nor in the numbers reported. Seeing two to four of these beauties at one time is a significant treat. Here’s one from Reddie Point Preserve on 18 April:

18 April 2018 - Scarlet Tanager

Next up should be White-rumped Sandpipers – they could be here as early as 5 May, but more likely to arrive in the second and third week of May. Spoonbill Pond and Heritage River Road Wetlands is the best place to be on the lookout for them.

Seasonal rarities at Huguenot (and elsewhere!)

It’s hard to believe I haven’t written anything since October out here; I knew I’d be distracted through December finishing up school but honestly intended to get back into it with the new year. The good news is that school is done (forever) and I’m starting to get motivated to get some new material out here in between other writing I’m doing for the Florida Field Naturalist (shameless plug, if you aren’t a member of the Florida Ornithological Society, join).

I’ve been enjoying being able to get out in the field again and along with getting some nice sparrows this winter, we’ve had some really nice seasonal rarities out there.

Last year, most everyone missed Red-throated Loons in Duval County but this year I’ve already seen two – Dave Foster spotted one in the lagoon while we were at Huguenot on the morning of 20 January; that bird was in the lagoon and wasn’t relocated after that morning. Then on 11 February I noticed a black and white head in the river behind the nature center and casually ID’d it as a Horned Grebe and immediately called Lesley over to come see it. We got the scopes out and couldn’t find a Grebe but did catch up with a struggling Red-throated Loon (at that point the outgoing tide had already taken it several hundred yards east). While the loon’s condition provided great photo opportunities, it clearly wasn’t doing well and I tried several times to carry it back into the river since it kept getting washed up.

Red-throated Loon, Huguenot Memorial Park in Jacksonville, FL

I called Jeff and by the time he arrived the loon had already perished. I believe he collected it to hand-off to Dave, who will in turn deliver to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

This has also been a good stretch for seeing Purple Sandpipers at Huguenot. This is a species that is hard to rely on seeing every winter, but this year I’ve already seen them 6 times since I first recorded them on 20 January. There is at least a pair of them, and they are primarily hanging out on the sand between the jetties and the river (not on the jetty rocks); I’ve even found the pair on the northwest side of the park roosting with the masses of Dunlin and Plovers.

Purple Sandpiper, Huguenot Memorial Park (18 Feb 2018)

You won’t always get a view of this species from this angle or clarity in northeast Florida, so I’ve included a couple other shots to help someone pick them out of a crowd. In the image below, you can see the rough comparison in terms of size with the Dunlin on the right.

Purple Sandpiper (left) with Dunlin (right)

You can see that the Purple is a little larger, rounder, and much darker. When roosting in a huge flock of Dunlin, the darkness of the Purple really stands out in the crowd. Speaking of crowds, the images below will hopefully provide some help when looking for a Purple in the midst of a group of Ruddy Turnstones.

Purple Sandpiper among Ruddy Turnstones (20 Jan 2018)

In this image, you can see the Purple out front – the “smudgy” chest and difference in leg color certainly stand out, but you can also see how very similar they are in size and coloration of the top / back of the bird. In a tighter group, the Purple becomes much more difficult to detect.

Purple Sandpiper with Ruddys

In the image above, you can see how a more casual scan of shorebirds along the river might not result in finding a Purple Sandpiper, but scan again  – this time looking at the legs and not the whole bird. The shorter appearance and distinctly less orange legs of the bird 5th from the right now pop out.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a spectacular bird found by Lesley on 27 January 2018 at a retention pond next to Wal-Mart in Arlington – Long-tailed Duck. I have no idea why Lesley was birding at Wal-Mart, but she deserves all the credit in the world on looking at places no one else does and picking this bird out on a windy, rainy afternoon.

Long-tailed Duck, Jacksonville, FL (27 January 2018)

Lesley’s bird was the first of the species in Duval County since 2002 and was a “county lifer” for me – number 307 and the first new county bird for me in almost two years (it gets really tough after 300 here!). As for the disposition of the bird, I last recorded it on 3 February and subsequent personal visits have turned up empty in all the surrounding ponds.

“But Kevin, aren’t you forgetting a couple of rarities?” Yes! How can I forget – on 3 February I started my day at Huguenot with Marie and we found an Iceland Gull (a real one, not an all white Laughing Gull!) in the most horrible light you can imagine.

Iceland Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

As I was scanning the rest of the flock, I saw another large white gull – a Glaucous! I can’t recall exactly, but I think I’ve only see both Iceland and Glaucous in Duval County on the same day once before; it’s truly an exceptional occurrence here.

Glaucous Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

So there you have it: Purple Sandpiper, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Iceland Gull, and Glaucous Gull. This is why I love spending a huge chunk of my birding time at Huguenot and being patient. When every day isn’t a frantic big day tick-fest you can often find some truly special birds.