Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Way Past Due: A Weekend Around St. Pete Beach, FL

I apologize for the time it's taken for me to report on this trip. But you know about the "best laid plans" and all those other homilies.......

Several weekends ago, Sept. 6 - 9, 2012 to be exact, Avie attended the Southern Sleep Conference at St. Pete Beach, FL, kindly taking me along. In addition to visiting with some old friends who had moved to the area years ago, I also took the opportunity to do a bit of birding on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Happily, it was during fall migration. Even better, the St. Pete Beach Audubon Society was having a field trip to John Chesnut Sr. Park. Located on the southeast corner of Lake Tarpon it is reputed to be a great migrant "trap". So, I hopped into our rental car and set out to join them.

Right out of the car, in the parking lot, there were Warblers galore. Unfortunately, the time spent in an air conditioned car caused my binoculars to fog up when I got out into Florida's humid weather. So, while everyone else was counting the Warblers, I was listening and straining with eyes naked.

The field trip took us to a couple of different parking lots, chasing mixed flocks. The most common birds were Blackburnian and Yellow-throated Warbler. Of course, being Warblers, an my being more a birder than a photographer, I enjoyed seeing them and didn't make an attempt to photograph these ever-moving little birds.

However, a bit later in the trip, we took a trail where there were a couple of cooperative birds. One was an Eastern Wood-Peewee, perched in clear view.

But I'd have to say the best photo op and tied with a Prothonotary Warbler for best bird of the day was this cooperative Barred Owl. It sat very still, but refused to turn its head so I could get its face in the photos I took. No matter -- any birding day with an owl is a good birding day.

Shame on me for not saving my bird list from this day. But I will say, in spite of a lengthy downpour which limited our available time in the field, it was a worthwhile fall migration spot if you find yourself in the area.

Avie's conference ended on Saturday afternoon. So, Sunday morning we packed up, checked out of our hotel, and headed down to Fort DeSoto Park for a full morning of birding. It was raining when we drove down and it rained for a couple of hours after we got into the park. It put a little bit of a damper on things. But, dammit, we're birders! So we persevered.

Of course, most of the birds continued on in spite of the rain, as demonstrated by this Great Blue Heron, perusing the puddles in one of the parking lots for frogs.

On a stop into the ladies' room, I picked the lucky stall and saw this large Cuban Tree Frog literally hanging around. Since the restroom was deserted, I called Avie in and asked him to put his finger in the frame of the photo for size perspective. The frog didn't even balk.

As you know, birders are a friendly group of folk. While we were looking up into some pine trees, a car pulled over and asked if we had "seen anything good". We pointed out a Pine Warbler. The gentleman in the car recommended we go over to the "Ranger's House" and walk around the fence along the trail to the big tree in the back. We took his advice and saw the best mixed flock of the day.

Again, Blackburnian and Yellow-throated Warblers were the most common birds. But we were also greeted with many other migratory songbirds. Additionally, there was an amazing migration of Common Nighthawks overhead, with thousands flying in a never-ending stream.

A Cuban Anole sat on a nearby tree, sunning.

On our way out of the park we stopped at an area which was supposed to be good for shorebirds (GROAN!). We fought against working with these tricky birds for over twenty-five years. But we've decided, with our new 80mm Swarovski Scope, it's about time we try to tackle them. Tackle them we did -- juvenile/fall plumage and all.

So, what follows are our best attempts at identification. If you find any issues, please let me know in the comments.

Here's a non-breeding Willet:

Short-billed Dowitcher:


Too much obstructive greenery for many of them. But there's a lovely "coming into plumage" Black-bellied Plover to the right.

Just a nice shot of a Great Egret behind a Black-bellied Plover:

Okay -- My brain is starting to hurt, so I'll let you identify the rest. I will tell you these are the shorebirds we know we saw:
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher

We also saw this Wood Stork, looking very much like a coquettish dancer in the water.

I'm not sure when we'll be returning to the Gulf Coast area of Florida. But, compared to our subsequent weekend on the Atlantic Coast, I would say fall birding is far superior on the West side of the peninsula!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hollywood, FL Area

Last weekend we were in St. Pete Beach, FL, on the Gulf Coast. But that post will have to come second, even though this is really the second weekend in a row we’re visiting Florida.

This visit is really to see our daughter’s new apartment in Hollywood Beach (and it is GORGEOUS!). But, as usual, we had to mix in a bit of birding.

I DO have to say we found the fall migration much more evident on the Gulf Coast. In fact, after visiting several parks in the Hollywood area, we’re coming a way a bit disappointed. Birds were few and far between, and the best birding park was the one which only recommended a single species of bird to its name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since my daughter was working today, we rented a car from Enterprise. They picked us up, we signed some papers, and off we went.

Our first stop was John U. Lloyd Beach State Park. It was recommended in A Birder’s Guide to Florida by Bill Pranty, as well as by an area contact on We paid our $6 fee and slowly drove around the area, looking and listening. SILENCE!

To be fair, it wasn’t completely devoid of birds. We came across a lovely flock of graceful White Ibises bathing and preening in the water from last night’s rains.


Checking the beach, we saw a couple of juvenile Sanderlings – very striking with their lovely black and white patterning.


The only other bird we heard was a busy Northern Mockingbird.

Our next stop was the northern portion of West Lake Park. Again we drove. Again we were greeted with silence and no visible movement. We began to wonder if the East Coast of South Florida had overdeveloped to the point of depleting the necessary requirements of migrating songbirds. Of course, it could also just be a case of wrong place, wrong time.

We decided to try for a “sure thing” and continued driving along Sheridan St. to the Brian Piccolo Park. We heard there were several Burrowing Owls there, their burrows being marked with wooden stakes and flagging tape. As we entered the park we saw the roped off areas. The burrows are marked with wooden stakes. However, instead of the flagging tape, they’re now using yellow rope.

We checked a few burrows; but many of the owls were tucked deep down with grass and weeds growing over the opening, obscuring our view.

Finally, we came on one burrow with a clear opening and one of the “cute” Burrowing Owls near the entrance.

P1020409 P1020410

The park also holds several communal Monk Parakeet nests by the electric lines.


We were lucky enough to hear the Parakeets up in nearby trees, since they’re extremely difficult to see, blending in so well. So I took the opportunity to get a few shots of them up close and personal.

P1020419 P1020422
We also saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (FINALLY, a migrating songbird!).

Our final stop was the south side of West Lake Park. Another nice flock of White Ibises and a Tricolored Heron greeted us as we drove in.


Again, the park was quiet. We stopped at the boating ramp and added a Great Blue Heron and a Spotted Sandpiper to our day list, which wasn’t very extensive. I tried for a better photo of the Sandpiper. But it was off in the distance, so this is the best I could do.

All in all, not a superior day of birding. But any birding makes for a superior day. Right?

Monday, September 3, 2012

What We Did on Labor Day Weekend

No picnics. No beach. Avie and I spent yesterday and today mostly communing with nature, with a little Ethiopian food and dining nook/bird viewing spot updating.

The morning was spent at Warbler Woods, a nearby sanctuary in the middle of suburban development. It's always a great stop for birding because Don and Susan Schaezler have created a haven for both resident and migrating birds.

Birding was a bit slow during our time there. But it's always worthwhile when you can sit comfortably and see a Blue-headed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Great-crested Flycatcher, and Yellow-breasted Chat, along with other, more common birds mixed in.

Today we spent the morning at the San Antonio Botanical Garden perusing South Texas native plantings. We want to revamp our landscaping at three levels: xeriscaping, wildscaping, mostly native plantings. Here are a few photos of what our front currently looks like during our ongoing drought.

Between St. Augustine grass, a sprinkler-based irrigation system, and that expanse of lawn, I think we can do much better while providing food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and bees, and color and textural interest for ourselves.

We've already selected a landscaping company, Lafield Landscaping. Terri and Rick are excited about working with us and seem to understand what we want, but willing to go outside our desire to eliminate the lawn completely, and give us a more welcoming front with very limited grass (Zoysia rather than St. Augustine).

I took lots of photos at the Botanical Gardens. I tried to stick with native Texas plants. But some non-natives begged to be included in my photos. I'll provide commentary along the way.

This is Yucca nana, but was unmarked in the gardens. I really like it and would like to see if we can work this into the landscape if it meets enough of our criteria. It's not too large and offers some interesting texture.  

 This photo is one species of Zoysia, Zoysia japonica. It's a much softer grass than St. Augustine and requires less water. Terie Lafield insists we need some grass to keep our front from being too hard and unwelcoming. After looking at other people's landscapes, Avie and I have come around to understanding she's correct.

 Next is an Anacacho Orchid Tree (Bauhinia congesta). Apparently, this is one of the best small ornamental trees for the Central and Southern regions of the state. 
Anacacho Orchid Tree is moderately fast growing if given regular watering but is also tough enough to withstand extreme drought. Seems like it fits most of our criteria. Just need to check what it offers wildlife.

This silvery low-growing shrub was unmarked throughout the gardens. But it was quite pretty up against greener landscaping as a border planting.

The landscapers intend to use Purple Trailing Lantana in our garden. I know for a fact it's an incredible butterfly magnet, since we already have some.

 What could be more Texas than grasses? Luckily, there are all types available to see at the Gardens. This first one is adorable and I love it -- but I don't think it's native. Rather, I believe it's from the sub-Sahara in Africa. Bummer!

However, Lindheimer's Muhly Grass, which can grow over six feet tall, is native to the Edwards Plateau, exactly where we live! It was all over the Botanical Gardens, so we were able to see it in all different kinds of settings.

Butterfly break!!!!! (Gulf Fritillary)

Something I would love to do, and I'm debating it with the landscapers, is yank out the ugly hedges in the front of the house and replace them with a mixed hedge we can allow to grow a bit more organically. Suncatcher (with the yellow flowers) is one of the plants I like for that purpose.

I also love the non-native, but very drought resistant and berry producing Dwarf Barbados Cherry, a plant we already have growing as a natural "weed" in our backyard. It's something I'm hoping we could relocate to the front.

Look how pretty the flowers are close up!

Then there are the Yuccas. They'll add both texture, shelter, and flowers for hummingbirds to the garden. The one we see most often around San Antonio is the Red Yucca, with its pink-red flowers on a high stalk.

The Botanical Gardens also had a Twist-Leaf Yucca, native to the Edward Plateau and indicated for limestone hillsides, exactly where we live.

How about a bush growing chiles (Chili Peqin or Capsicum annuum)? Food for both bird and human!

Avie and I have also discussed a type of native grass called Sideoats Grama. We didn't see any at the Botanical Gardens. But they did have Inland Sea Oats, which they indicated was native to Texas. It had seed heads hanging off each plant. They'd be great food for birds and would be very pretty swaying in a breeze.

Bat-faced Cuphea (Cuphea llavea) is another plant our landscaper wants to put around the gardens. It's a very pretty bush with striking bright red and deep purple flowers which resemble a bat's face.

One final plant is Silver Ponyfoot. We're thinking it might look nice as a full-sun border plant along the driveway. It also hangs over rocks nicely, in case we decide to do something like that with raised beds. This photo isn't from the Gardens, but from a Native Plant Center in New Braunfels.

 All in all, the visit to the Gardens made for a great day. We even had a chance to see some birds, such as this juvenile American Robin scratching around the leaf litter for food.