Monday, April 30, 2018

Final Florida Fort

The last fort that I visited was by myself. Lori flew back home on Wed and I headed up to St. Petersburg to visit Fort De Soto State Park. This park is on a spit of land that juts out into Tampa Bay and was constructed to protect that port. The area hosts a lot of migrating shorebirds, terns and Skimmers. I hit the photographic jackpot here thanks to a couple that directed me to the right locations. You already saw the Reddish Egret photos which were taken here. There were 2 other birds that I was hoping to photograph - Wilson's Plover and Marbled Godwit. I never imagined that I would get this close. The images that follow are barely cropped or edited.

Wilson's Plover
Wilson's Plover rarely shows up in New Jersey. I love the big bill and dopey look of these birds. This one literally walked up to me as I crouched on the beach photographing another bird. She was like "Hey, take a picture of me too", so I did. In fact, I took dozens of them.

Wilson's Plover
Here is another Wilson's Plover who was much more shy but I was able to get this shot. Look at how much darker he is.

Wilson's Plover
That other bird that I was photographing when the Wilson's Plover walked up is Short-billed Dowitcher. This bird was surrounded by photographers and still managed to pluck a clam out of the sand. We see plenty of these in New Jersey but it is always great to get up close.

Short-billed Dowitcher with Clam
I haven't moved yet. I'm crouched in the sand at the water's edge and here comes Black-bellied Plover.

Black-bellied Plover
I finally moved a few feet further down the lagoon and found another Black-bellied Plover. You can see that this bird was equally not impressed with the paparazzi.

Black-bellied Plover
I looked up and saw my other target bird flying across the lagoon so I headed over to the other side to see if I could get a photo. One of the other photographers said "you'll never get close to that bird" - a challenge if I ever heard one. The fact is that the bird couldn't care less about me. I crouched there and it walked on by!
Marbled Godwit
The obvious field mark on Godwits is the long bill. Marbled Godwit bills are really long and slightly upturned which you can see on the above photograph. The bird eventually flew to the other side of the lagoon and I found it again later.
Marbled Godwit
Another bird with an unusual bill is the Whimbrel. We see these birds in New Jersey but they are always way out in the marsh. This one foraged in the weeds and then came to the lagoon for a quick drink. 
On the way out of the park, I watched this Great Blue Heron fishing. She couldn't miss. Every time she put her bill in the water, another fish. Incredible.

Great Blue Heron
She would flip the fish in her bill before swallowing it whole.

Flippin' Fish
What a great day at Fort De Soto. That's the last of the forts for this trip. I recommend that you visit all of them is possible.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Florida Fort #2

Fort Jefferson is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. It sits 68 miles west of Key West in an island group known as The Dry Tortugas. "Tortuga" means turtle in Spanish. Ponce deLeon named the islands in 1513 after catching over 100 sea turtles there. Sad to hear about today but turtles were a great source of meat for sailors in those days. The fort is massive and was constructed to protect the shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico after the War of 1812. Today, it is part of Dry Tortugas National Park which is one of the most remote parks in the system.

I read a magazine article about birding on the Dry Tortugas many years ago and have dreamed about visiting ever since. This was the year. I invited several people but only Lori could make it this year. We planned to camp overnight but those plans were dashed when we learned that reservations needed to be made a year in advance. We opted for the day trip aboard the Yankee Freedom Ferry. The ferry leaves Key West daily at 8 AM. You arrive at Fort Jefferson by 10:30, spend 4 hours on the island birding, learning about the fort and/or snorkeling and arrive back in Key west by 5:30 PM. The ferry provides breakfast and lunch, snorkel gear and cash bar on the ride back all for $175. Not bad.

The Tortugas are known stopovers for migrating birds in spring as the birds island hop from South America across the Caribbean to get to North America. Remember, the birds migrate at night and refuel during the day which is great for birders.

Before we even arrived at the island, we saw hundreds of birds. The captain made sure to swing by "Hospital Key" so that we could see the only Masked Booby colony in the US.

Masked Boobies
Hard to believe that this sand spit once had an actual hospital on it. It was washed away many years ago. We also had our first look at the Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns that nest by the thousands here.

Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns
Lori and I were the first passengers off the boat. The fort is surrounded by a moat. Other people already arrived by private boat or seaplane.

Fort Jefferson
We plopped our gear on a picnic table and headed off to find birds which we did immediately.

Me and the Ruddy Turnstones

Lori and her little friends
These Ruddy Turnstones literally walked between our feet. They were so interested in eating that they were not afraid of the hundred or so people on the island. Lori loved it!

Once we were settled, we tried to optimize our time and headed inside the fort for birds. There are some trees and about 10 acres of open space that attract the birds.

Fort Jefferson
Most of the birds that we saw here will arrive in our area within the next few weeks on their way to breeding territories.

Acadian Flycatcher
Cape May Warbler
Hooded Warbler - female

Others birds that we find at the Dry Tortugas are specialty birds that we will not see in our area or anywhere else for that matter - including the Boobies, Noddies and Terns mentioned already but also birds like this Antillean Nighthawk which only comes as far north as the Tortugas and Florida Keys.

Antillean Nighthawk
 Nighthawks are so confident in their camouflage that they just sit there really close to the path. This one opened his eye for a minute which produced this cool shot where you can see the reflection of the fort in his eye (click on the image to make it bigger).

Nighthawk reflections
Another special bird is Shiny Cowbird. They really are shiny.

Shiny Cowbird
 While the main attraction was birding, we did manage to spend some time exploring the fort. We found this Barracuda hanging out in the moat.

Barracuda in the Moat
Good thing we didn't see one when we went snorkeling. We saw some fish but the visibility wasn't great. The coolest part of the snorkeling was getting super close to the Noddies. They were perched on any old structure around the island like this ruined dock.

Brown Noddies - Coaling Dock
I actually snorkeled around the pilings of the dock. When I picked my head up out of the water and there they were just hanging out, not worried about me at all.

Brown Noddies
Lori made me go up to the top of the fort - 45 feet up spiral staircases with no handrail or lighting. I'm glad that we did it but I got down as fast as possible. Lori stayed up and took some spectacular photos showing the color of the water surrounding the islands. This shot shows the seaplane waiting to take passengers back to Key West.

Seaplane at Garden Key
We bid farewell for now but will definitely be back again. I managed to snap this photo of Brown Booby on the way out of the dock just for a bonus.

Brown Booby

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Florida is Full of Forts

And I saw 3 of them this week. Lori and I started with Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West. This little park is good for migrant birds but doesn't open until 8 AM. We were there at 7:30 itching to get in. We found some good birds around the fort including this Common Yellowthroat.

Common Yellowthroat
 And this Northern Parula that posed nicely.

We also saw this poor Northern Pintail that is obviously injured and cannot make the journey back north where he belongs. Handsome duck.

Northern Pintail
 And then there were the cannons.

Giant Cannon
We toured the fort and found this Common Ground Dove up on the rampart. What a cutie. He was just on the other side of the wrought iron fence which made him look like a caged bird.

Common Ground Dove
These Iguanas clinging to the wall to warm up. Iguanas are everywhere is south Florida. Yuck.

We visited another really cool fort a few days later.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Birds in Motion

Lori and I made a trip to the Florida Keys this week to catch some new birds and migrants. We were mainly successful with great weather and great birds. One of my favorite birds is the Magnificent Frigatebird. You can't miss the ID on this bird. It is the only bird that looks like this in the sky:

Magnificent Frigatebird
They are masters at flight and soaring. They use their long, pointed wings to catch the wind and effortlessly cover alot of area at sea and along the coastline. This immature bird barely moved his wings while preening. Check out the series of photos that I took as he hung on the wind above our heads in Key West.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird - preening

Magnificent Frigatebird - preening

Back to flying

I'm in Florida for 10 days which gives me time to really enjoy the birds and the weather rather than just run from place to place trying to fit everything in. That extra time gave me the opportunity to watch another favorite bird in action - Reddish Egret. Just seeing one is terrific, but this guy put on a show.  They are really pretty and have long reddish feathers on their head and neck. 

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret
But if they see a fish that they want, they start flapping and running around in the water. 

Reddish Egret - fishing

Reddish Egret - fishing
Here is a video showing the chase. He didn't catch a fish this time but was successful on other attempts. 

The interesting thing is that this egret was hanging out with 3 Red-breasted Mergansers. Wherever they went, the egret went. They worked cooperatively. The Mergansers would scare up fish for the egret and vice-versa. This Merganser put on a show preening just a few feet in front of me. 

Red-breasted Merganser - scratching

Red-breasted Merganser - preening

Back to business
So much more to post from this trip. Keep an eye out for more including Dry Tortugas, Life Birds, Owls, and Shorebirds. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Preview of Things to Come

You know how birds fly south in the fall and then they fly north in the spring? Well it occurred to me that if the birds show up in our are in May, they must be somewhere south of that in April. Sure enough, research and connections at the DVOC showed that going to Florida in April might be a good idea. They were right.

Take the Cape May warbler. It was named by one of the early ornithologists because he shot one in Cape May NJ for a specimen. They next in Canada and winter in Central and South America. They rarely make it to NJ except for fleeting moments. I maybe see 1 each spring and a dozen in the fall. Guess where we found 8 of them this morning? In the Florida Keys at Windley Key Fossil State Park.

Cape May Warbler
They flitted around all morning just a few feet in front of us. We tried to get some good photos but only managed a few. Check out the rusty cheek patch on this guy. He was joined by 6 other males and 1 female. We also spent the morning with our signature bird - Black-throated Blue warbler.

Black-throated Blue Warbler
While these birds are more common in our area, it is still great to spend quality time with one. We saw other warblers too but didn't get any photos for the blog. You have to keep your eyes peeled down here because there are rarities too. I thought I had one with this bird but it turns out to be a browner version of our normal Mockingbird.

Although the Cape May Warbler may be misnamed, they nailed the name of this creature. Can you guess?

Curlytailed Lizard
I Googled "curly tailed lizard florida". The name of the lizard is actually Curlytailed Lizard!

Lori and I just got here. She booked us a luxury 2 bedrooom/2 bath condo at Hyatt Regency. It has all the amenities including pool, beach, tiki bar and a veranda from which I am writing this blog post. All for the same price as 2 hotel rooms in a regular hotel. Wow.