Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!* Familial obligations over, flight home still twenty-four hours away, we had a full day to devote to birding and a plan about how to spend it. And a loaner car, since Pinellas County is not abundantly blessed by the gods of public transit and this was hardly going to count for the BGBY anyhow. And a bag with sandwiches, and a couple of bottles of water. And sun screen, and anti-bug goop, and a safari hat, and a camera, and binoculars and field guides – everything that goes into a successful Florida birding trip.
Well-equipped and hopeful, as you can see.
First stop, Brooker Creek Preserve. I hoped to pick up Brown-headed Nuthatch, Summer Tanager, Common Ground-dove, any sort of migrating warblers, maybe Limpkin or Swallow-tailed Kite.
What I found was this:
No, I don’t know what it is either. I doubt that it knows what it is itself. What it was, though, was one of only three birds that we saw in the several hours we spent in Brooker Creek Preserve; the other two were a Gray Catbird and a Northern Cardinal.
While we were standing on the boardwalk staring at the What-is-it, the mosquitoes noticed us. We applied the bug goop liberally, and this dissuaded most of them – but dissuading most of the mosquitoes in a Florida woodland only means that you’re encouraging natural selection for the hardy minority, unless of course you swat them. Which fortunately we had plenty of time to do, what with not seeing any birds.
We encountered three local birders early in the jaunt, who shrugged apologetically and said that there “wasn’t much out there today” – honest, but not exactly news, even by that point. A little later, it started to sprinkle – which did keep the mosquitoes down somewhat. We continued anyway. We had to, because otherwise nature couldn’t play the merry little jape she had up her sleeve, and unleash a heavy, fat-dropped subtropical downpour on us to the accompaniment of distant thunder just when we were at the point in the trail system most distant from the car. It would have been a shame to miss that.
By the time we made it back to the car, I finally knew what it felt like to be cold in Florida.
Still, all was not lost! Storms that come on quickly often quickly pass away. And though we had planned to make a straight shot to Honeymoon Island State Park, we had the option of instead making a meandering way there along the coast and trying to pick up some birds from the car as well. Hoping to shake the rain or at least dry out a little, we took that option.
When the sun peeked out, we decided to find a place where we could get out of the car and look around, Honeymoon Island or no Honeymoon Island. Thus it was that we ended up at Fred Howard Park, driving out the causeway fringed in shorebirds to a little sandy island fringed in shorebirds.
One of the first things that my eyes fixed on when I got out of the car was… well, it was a Boat-tailed Grackle, but once I’d walked a little bit, I saw a lovely big flock of Black Skimmers.
I’ve been enamored of Black Skimmers ever since I saw one from the Gil Hopkins Bridge two years ago, a welcome distraction from my pathetic efforts to pedal over. You would think that their asymmetrical bill would make them look goofy, but I find that they have a certain gravitas – look, they’re professionals at this skimming thing, they even have specialized tools!
I enjoyed them until a pair of bathing-suited small children ran into the area and flushed them, then began a more thorough scan of the area. A couple of Marbled Godwits – life birds for me – mingled with a bunch of Willets and the odd near-breeding-plumage Ruddy Turnstone. On the other side of the island, a Tern with a yellow-tipped black bill caught my eye, but unfortunately, before the Inimitable Todd could get the requisite pictures yet another wandering child scared it away. Still, there it had been, a Sandwich Tern – life bird two for the day. The rest of the island yielded more shorebirds – Semipalmated Plover, more Willets and Godwits, and a frustratingly silent Dowitcher. The IT became enamored of the Great Blue Heron that was soliciting fisherfolk for scraps along the side of the road – it was a most obliging model.
Then it was on the road again. I was trying to divide my eyes between the road shoulders and the telephone wires, hoping for both Common Ground-dove and Gray Kingbird, so when a Black Vulture popped hir head out of the ditch I was startled and discombobulated. It was a cool moment.
As we drove, the rain began to spit again. This worried me. I’d been assured that Gray Kingbirds were impossible to miss on the Honeymoon Island causeway, but if the morning had taught me one thing, it was that passerines are quite good at making themselves scarce in the rain.
Happily, we were on a rather quiet one-way street at the moment that I saw something too small and to reddish to be a Mourning Dove flush from the side of the bike path; I yelled, and the IT popped a quick illegal u-turn and let me jump out. Sure enough, Common Ground-dove. I savored it for a long minute before I returned to the car.
We weren’t far now from Honeymoon Island. So, sure enough, it started raining in earnest again. By the time we paid to get in and drove to the farthest point, it was pouring. We sat in the car and ate our sandwiches, staring out at the rain and the occasional Laughing Gulls and Osprey that braved it (you have been remembering to insert an Osprey into this trip every five minutes, yes?) When there were no more sandwiches, we drove to the Nature Center to see if it held any hot tips; there was a rumor of a Reddish Egret on the causeway, and some interesting dioramas, but nothing that could hold our attention until the rain stopped.
We found a place to park on the causeway without to much trouble, and the rain, seeing that we had left the park, let up again a bit. Walking up one side yielded the photogenic Royal Tern that I previously posted, and several Brown Pelicans, a large flock of Palm Warblers and some Mockingbirds gray enough that they gave me a tremor of hope. Then the rain noticed what we were up to and cut loose. Walking back down the other side of the causeway with a dripping hat, I saw something swoop out of the clouds with a distinct profile – raised my besmeared binoculars, and got my life Magnificent Frigatebird. It was an ideal note to end on – and it was the end, except for the Little Blue Heron that tried to fool me into thinking it was a Reddish Egret.
The end of the heron; the heron of the end.
So I dipped on the unmissable Gray Kingbird; likewise on Swallow-tailed Kite, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Limpkin. Still, it was a good trip, despite the getting drenched, and at least I have something to look forward to for next time.
Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa *LL
Willet Tringa semipalmatus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenarea interpres
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis *LL
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Common Ground Dove Columbina passerina *LL
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens *LL
Little Blue Heron Florida caerula
*This is now two Sundays ago. You’ll find out why soon.