The second Whip Walk of the year was at Betz Tiger Point on Monday, March 16th. Marie and I arrived a little early (around 6:30PM) to listen for things like Northern Bobwhite or Owls. We birded a little bit around Pumpkin Hill Road and found our way to the short fishing pier at Betz, where around 7 or 7:30PM the rails really started making some racket. We heard three distinct groups calling, the middle of which was comprised mostly of Virginia Rail – a species that is very rarely reported in the County, but seems to be fairly reliable in this part of the marsh. We didn’t manage any Whip-poor-wills that evening, but the Chuck-will’s-widows were vocalizing quite nicely after sunset.
The third Whip Walk was much more productive the following night, where temperatures were in the mid to low 80’s in the evening. Marie and I were joined by Dave and Carly at Cedar Point Preserve, where we walked down the trail past the hammock loop to the clearing where the pine forest starts. Dave mentioned this was his sweet spot for the nightjars last year, and they made him look good again this year. Despite an end-of-days type of infestation of gnats and no-see-ums, we had an enjoyable time listening to at least 6 Eastern Whip-poor-wills call between 7:52-7:59PM, in addition to one Great Horned Owl and two Barred Owls. Oddly, no Chucks added their voice to the concert.
Last night (March 18th), I birded Sheffield Park for nightjars and tallied just a single Chuck. It was cooler than the previous night, with temps around 67 and a pretty stiff breeze under cloudy skies. I started by walking around the back side of the large pond in hopes of finding an Ovenbird or Louisiana Waterthrush in the swampy wet bottom lands, but managed just a few Hermit Thrushes and Northern Cardinals. There was a lot of ambient noise between the basketball court, winds, metal clanging from somewhere, and barking dogs (there’s an informal kennel backing up to the property). The catbirds and geese passing over added to the din around dusk, so if any Whips were singing, I certainly couldn’t hear them.
Today was my March Nassau County Twelve Day Big Year day. We started at Amelia Island SP, totaling 32 quick species including several pairs of Wilson’s Plovers. After AISP, we spent most of the morning birding the south end of Egan’s Greenway (park behind the Residence Inn hotel) where the birds were quiet active on a beautiful morning. I added several new species to the competition, but the best find out there was a perfect overgrown area on the bike trail where the sun rises from your back and lights up vegetation reaching as high as 40 feet. This is going to reap rewards in migration. We tallied 39 species at Egan’s including new year birds such as Yellow-throated Warbler, Barred Owl, and Brown-headed Cowbird.
The other real treat of the day was a pair of Great Horned Owl chicks on an Osprey platform in Fernandina Beach – thanks to Gail for the tip and location! Overall, I added 11 new species to the competition, bringing my total to 99 in Nassau in those three days. I also added five new County “lifers” in the process.
This spring Marie and I are doing a series of “Whip Walks” around local parks the week of March 15th to search for Eastern Whip-poor-will. Roger Clark taught me years ago that this was the best week of the year to hear them singing, so I try to make the effort each year to get ’em while they’re hot. Last night’s walk was on Fort George Island, where we started at the Kingsley Plantation gate and heard Eastern Screech Owl and Great Horned Owls calling. We moved down the road to the Mount Cornelia area and heard a Barred Owl followed by a very early Chuck-will’s-widow, but did not hear a whip all night. The Chuck observation is at least two weeks “early”, and marks one of the earliest seasonal reports on record in Duval County.
After spending the week in Minnesota for work (where I added Black-capped Chickadee, Hairy Woodpecker, and Dark-eyed Junco to my year list), I couldn’t wait to get back out to Huguenot Memorial Park when I got back to town. I arrived at Huguenot around 5:30PM this evening, where onshore winds were blowing and the sea was rough. I didn’t find any new arrivals, but gull and tern numbers are starting to build again for nesting season. Perhaps the most interesting bird tonight was this aberrent Laughing Gull, whose bright orange legs and bill really stood out from the group.
It should be really any time now for new shorebirds like Whimbrel, Pectoral Sandpiper, or Marbled Godwit to arrive, as well as Gull-billed Terns.
On March 7, 2015, Marie and I spent the morning birding to the west of Duval County. Our main target species was Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a species we hadn’t seen in a couple of years and wanted to add to our year list. We headed out to Baker County and stopped at the Olustee Battlefield site, where we picked up a singing Bachman’s Sparrow and a few other county year birds. We continued west to a known Red-cockaded colony, where we got the pleasure of seeing 4 of them cavorting around the site in bright early morning sunlight. Even though that’s a “go to” spot for the species, I always forget that it’s actually in Columbia County!
Since the intention was to work on our Baker list, we made another stop in the Osceola National Forest to tick another Cockaded on the way to Hog Pen Landing area. Overall, Baker County is some extremely tough going if you’re trying to rack up species; we spent about 5 hours there and managed just 48 species. We didn’t visit any great traps or parks, and even the eBird hotspots are slow and difficult to bird. Our best luck was really in just looking for movement on the side of the country roads and pulling over along the treelines to work through a feeding flock.
We did find an interesting industrial dumping ground on US 90 just southwest of the I-10 exit; this area had a small group of trees and some brushpiles. It’s about 50 yards wide, sandwiched in between railroad tracks and the main highway – but that’s the kind of place you have to be willing to check out in rural areas like Baker! Another good spot was the Wal-mart Distribution Center off US-90 heading back towards Nassau County; small ponds are a premium in Baker and this complex has several containing Pied-billed Grebes, American Coot, and even a Greater Yellowlegs.
Next time, we’ll have to explore the agricultural areas south of I-10, Sanderson, and Glen St. Mary to keep trying to build our Baker County list.