Saturday, December 23, 2006


It was becoming Sparrow season for me suddenly. Finally got good looks, and bad photos, of Vesper Sparrows a few weeks earlier and the LeConte's was new to the list. Now, there came a flood of emails from fellow birder Danny Bales all about Sharp-tailed Sparrows out at the Cape.

Time to twitch.

After confirming the spot Danny had been reliably finding the Sharp-tails over on the Shilo Marsh I found a morning to run over and do some walking in the muck. Shilo Marsh is on the northern edge of Merritt Island Nation Wildlife Refuge and usually can be accessed through roads winding around the Indian River.

The roads were closed for hunting season, however, so I had to head through Titusville and toward the Volusia county line. The spot was down a gritty road chock full of potholes that eventually finds its way to the marsh. The parking lot where boaters set off for hunting and fishing held few clues to the birds hiding deep within the marsh grasses.

More accustom to hiking through pine flatwoods and across beaches, I have little in the way of proper marsh footwear. Most have waders or galoshes. I had only swin shoes. Not too safe in case of snake encounters but a boy can't make a detour to the shoe store when the sparrows are waiting!

I slowly entered the marsh in the area indicated by email. I could make out weak trails leading out toward the water and into the grass. Most likely these trails were left in evidence by Danny's early visits. Not many other humans are casually walking in this environment.

As the mud flowed into my shoes, small birds began leaping ahead of me to find a new hiding spaces. Most of these were Savannah Saprrows. Once I got farther into the marsh the Savannahs were replaced by Swamp Sparrows. The target sparrows should be close but they prefer an even more specific zone down near the edge of the water.

30 minutes after slowly sloshing, watching, and listening I got my first Sharp-tails. I spent the next hour or so among them and tried to get a few photos. Not an easy prospect with such a shy subject. Throw in cloudy skies from large front that hit hours before and shadows can trick one into seeing things.

Persistance paid off as I had a few Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows occasionally leaping into view acting as scouts.

Nelson's Sparrow

The Nelson's seemed to be the most numerous. Took quite a while to actually convince any Saltmarsh Sparrows that I wasn't there to harm them. But, before I left for the day, a few made their way toward me as the sun started to break through the clouds.

Saltmarsh Sparrow

Now I have Sparrow Fever! My thoughts quickly started tryign to figure out how I could find a Seaside Sparrow before the year was through. It seems that window is closing fast. Christmas is here.

I was happy enough to have passed the 300 mark for the Life List.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

LeConte's Sparrow

Headed back to Lake Jessup to try and focus on Sparrows. I had the Vermilion Flycatcher checked off and there are so many more birds to search for. In fact, I barely flinched when Vermi showed up again a couple hours after sunrise. We waved hello and went about our merry way.

The only problem with locating the Vermilion was that I felt I had to share the news with the birding world. Now the place was beginning to crawl with humans and their 600 mm/stacked telephoto SLR digitals where last week I was all alone with much less hardware and a cheery morning.

A few heavily armed guys approached me to ask if I had seen the flycatcher. "Yep," says I, "he is right over thataway." I had already begun my sparrow search but I led them over to where Vermi flew to and they set up. Told them to have fun, I was hunting other prey this day.

Sparrows were everywhere out here. Mainly Savannah Sparrows but someone thought they had seem a LeConte's out here not long ago. Habitat sure is favorable for all kinds of sparrows and a LeConte's would be new for me.

Sparrows are hard to see in a place like this. The wire grass and bent over reeds make an excellent hiding place and you usually don't even know they are there until you are almost on top of them. Then, they fly up and away from you and dive into the next hiding place before you can even ID the species.

Not long after I showed the birders the flycatcher I noticed one sparrow that landed quicker than most. It also behaved differently in the fact that after it landed it actually came up unto the weeds and...posed. Turns out that this was my first LeConte's.

LeConte's Sparrow

Pretty sparrow. More yellow/orange than most brown and white sparrows we usually see around Florida.

LeConte's Sparrow

After a few minutes (yes, it stayed there for a couple minutes instead of seconds) it dropped down into the weeds and basically ran in the opposite direction. Though you see sparrows when they fly up and away to escape, they often prefer to run along the ground. With thick grasses all around you can loose or never even see the birds that are all around you.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Vermilion Flycatcher

Got an email from Paul saying he and Ken were out at a new location: North Lake Jessup Conservation Area. There, they found a Vermilion Flycatcher that was earlier reported during a November bird count in the area.

I have been trying to track down this species for 3 years with only email posts and roundabout directions to go by. Once I tried to follow the directions, I either got lost or the bird in question was not there.

This time Paul provided not only photographic proof but exact directions to the spot they had all found the bird. I wanted to head there right away but had other commitments and would have to wait another day or so hoping the bird would remain in the same spot.

Good thing I stopped biting my nails 20 years ago or I would have been searching for Band-aids...

Next opportunity to head for the bird would be after banding at Wekiva. Not the best time to hunt for birds since I wouldn't arrive until at least 11 AM, but you take what you can get. So, I bolted from the banding station as soon as possible and made my way through the lefts and rights toward the area.

I did make it to the spot by 11 AM on the dot. Following the precise directions provided, I head down the trail and made my way through the ancient oak woods and emerged in a pasture area at the northern edge of Lake Jessup on a clear and warm day. Here were the lone oaks described to me and the weedy growth areas teaming with sparrows.

Sparrows would draw me back here later. I had a flycatcher to try and find in this vast pasture land.

I began by taking in the vista and then slowly walked toward the lone oaks sprouting from the gold and dried brown grasses, scanning the vegetation as I stopped and started. The bird was seen near the water perched on a sign on one day and in an oak another.

As I moved the binoculars from left to right I stopped quickly by the time I got to the cattails about 200 yards ahead of me. There it was! A single dot of brilliant red against the rich greens of the lakeside plants. Vermilion Flycatcher? Check!

I was honestly happy enough with this view. I got the bird and a positive ID with the binoculars. So what if it was from far away. My cameras wouldn't register much more than a speck out there so why even worry. Instead, I decided to move a little closer to the smallest oak out there using it as a blind to get a few feet closer and be able to enjoy the fact that it was indeed here.

Then something weird happened. The bird flew directly at me! It landed in the small oak I was approaching and began to preen while perched in the center branches.

Every now and then it would fly out of the tree to grab a quick bite and land at the tree top and look at me. I was shooting film from 15 feet away. Like I say, birds dig me.

Vermilion Flycatcher

I took a lot of shots of this bird. For some reason, my trusty digital just ended up giving me extremely grainy shots. That's why I carry 2 cameras. As long as they keep processing film, I am safe.

Vermilion Flycatcher

The flycatcher and I spent at least 30 minutes together. It would continue to feed and then head back into the branches to preen. Eventually, it headed off into the dense forest edge and disappeared.

Vermilion Flycatcher

It was a magical morning out in the pasture. Just me and this gorgeous little bird. It was the first time I had been to this location and definitely would not be the last.