Monday, October 21, 2013

WINTER DESCENDS

Sunset at Paynes Prairie
This past weekend I spent a considerable amount of time exploring two of the larger wet prairies in the county, Levy Lake and Paynes Prairie.  On Saturday I led an intrepid group of 11 explores along the entire 6.8 mile stretch of the Levy Lake loop trail at Barr Hammock on an Alachua Audubon Society sponsored field trip.  On Sunday I decided to go solo on a leisurely evening stroll along the La Chua trail at Paynes Prairie.

At the Levy Lake trail, we spent about 6.5 hours traversing the entire loop trail.  North winds combined with a lack of any front or winds out of the south appeared to push most migrants right past the county and probably down into Central America or the Caribbean.  However, this didn't stop a flock of 8 northern rough-winged swallows from making a late appearance fairly early on in the hike.  We also ended up running into 9 different warblers, the group favorites being a Tennessee and a FOS orange-crowned warbler.  Other warblers observed included american redstart, northern parula, black-and-white, prairie, palm, common yellowthroat, and yellow.

Male Prairie warbler at La Chua
Many typical "snow birds" had already arrived in solid numbers.  The aforementioned palm warblers were fairly numerous, as were eastern phoebe, and catbirds.  A couple savannah sparrows were spotted, as were some house wrens and at least one marsh wren.  Nothing too out of the ordinary showed up, but everyone seemed pretty excited with what species presented themselves to us.  Everyone also seemed to share great conversations and bits of knowledge with each other, making it a very enjoyable experience.  We also were able to observe an adult bald eagle being harassed by a red-shouldered hawk, several sandhill cranes, a few black-bellied whistling ducks, and many other species.  Non-avian highlights included a large cottonmouth shed, a recently predated red-shouldered hawk, a white-tailed doe, and a striped mud turtle.  Apparently to test our mettle, mother nature decided to unleash a massive downpour on us with about 3/4 mile to go.  With nothing to do but grin and bear it, we all slogged on, laughing it off and splashing in the puddles which had quickly developed.

Sunday was a more relaxed effort, as I decided to stretch the legs and eyes a bit after completing my yardwork chores.  I went out around 3:30pm to just take in what the prairie was offering.  And what a wealth it offered me!  I started down "sparrow alley" to see what was lingering around this late in the day.  Large numbers of indigo buntings were flying all about, as were palm warblers and other expected species like white-eyed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher, eastern phoebe, blue jays, and northern cardinals.  I spent quite a bit of time just lazily meandering and then headed back towards the sink and then on to the observation platform.

Eastern phoebe

Brown thrasher






Blue Jay
Ground dove
Before I reached the sink, I stopped at "sora pond", and was delighted to find 5 sora out and about foraging at the fringes of the depressional, ephemeral pond.  Several more sora would end up being heard down along the main trail.  I can't wait to just hear loads of sora calling for the next few months!  What a glorious sound they all make together - making the prairie turn electric and alive!

Sora

A few belted kingfisher, anhinga, and several different species of wading birds were present at the sink and just beyond.  Common yellowthroat, more indigo bunting, Icterids, and many other species made their presence known along the main trail.  I finally ended up at the observation platform and decided to look for the female vermilion flycatcher which, if we can presume it's the same individual, had come back to the exact spot she did last year.  It only took a few minutes for her to pop out into the open and into a nearby Carolina willow.  She was actively foraging and looked simply radiant with the setting sun perfectly hitting her salmon colored flanks and undersides. 

Female belted kingfisher
Immature black-crowned night heron

Glossy ibis

Great blue heron (blue form)

The real manna came on the return trip from the platform.  Already elated by seeing the vermilion again, I was fortunate to see an american bittern take flight and move to another spot to forage.  As if it couldn't get any better, I noticed a sparrow fly by me which caught my attention for some reason (I had only been observing savannah sparrows prior to this individual).  It was only a few feet away from me, and I noticed the orange supercilium and malar region. I figured there was a good chance it was a Le Conte's, and when it finally came into the open along the trail, I was able to get great looks and a few decent photos.  I thought it was a bit dark in the flight feathers for a Le Conte's, but didn't even think about other possibilities given the location I was at.  However, upon inspecting the photos, Rex pointed out the gray median crown stripe and correct my incorrect ID of Le Conte's.  He identified the sparrow as a Nelson's.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah sparrow

Nelson's sparrow (next few photos)






In Florida, Nelson's are primarily restricted to coastal saltmarsh and beach dune habitats.  Like gray kingbirds, they are seldom seen inland.  So seldom in fact, Rex informed me it was only the third report/documentation for the county!  After looking more closely at the photos due to Rex's correct ID, I noticed the bill size and flight feather coloration were definitely more in-line with Nelson's than an immature Le Conte's (i.e. my incorrect identification).  I was lucky to watch this incredibly obliging and photogenic individual for quite a few minutes while it foraged on grass seeds.  After it left I headed towards the parking lot, where I heard a pair of great horned owls calling (initially heard when I was at the observation platform - incredible!), which capped off a great walk.

Female vermilion flycatcher - returned to same location!



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