A Walk in Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens with Chiggers

After a pleasant drive down from Miami, we stopped for an afternoon stroll through the beautiful Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens. I have been there twice before and I remember it being quite an active birding spot with Black-whiskered Vireos, Swainson’s Warblers and more passerine species. The weather was slightly warm and muggy with patchy clouds. Initially it was very quiet with nothing much moving or calling. I decided to explore the furthest reaches of the back trails which were overgrown with exposed roots, grass and other vegetation wearing shorts and sandals.

Photograph of the overgrown trail at the Key West Botanical Gardens
The Trail

I ventured off the trail several times in pursuit of birds that were chipping out-of-sight.Gradually the bird activity picked up and I was able to see and/or photograph 23 different species. The first birds were at the big pond at the entrance with an Anhinga, some Common Gallinules and a pair of Green Herons. One of which flew across the pond and literally crashed-landed on the other side.

Photograph of flying Green Heron
Green Heron

Pretty soon I was able to see a Gray Catbird, Black-and-white Warblers, Northern Parulas, a Magnolia Warbler, multiple Palm Warblers, a Prairie Warbler and two Black-throated Green Warblers.

Photograph of a Northern Parula
Northern Parula
Photograph of a Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Photograph of a Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Photograph of a Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler

On the way out we got good looks at the Anhinga again, as well as a Great Egret and some Common Ground-Doves.

Photograph of an Anhinga
Anhinga
Photograph of a Great Egret
Great Egret
Photograph of Common Ground-Doves
Common Ground-Doves

As the park was about to close, I looked up and saw a bird I have never seen before (referred to as a “Lifer”). Soaring slowly across the sky was a SHORT-TAILED HAWK. I snapped as many photos as I could and quickly texted Maria to look up. I caught up to her and made her look at it with my binocs!

Photograph of a White-tailed Hawk
Photograph of a White-tailed Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk

Now, the title of this post includes a reference to Chiggers. Apparently as I was traipsing through the vegetation, I was also collecting some microscopic Chigger larvae which all decided my legs and feet would make a great home. It made the next couple of days much more memorable, to say the least.

Photo of lower leg with multiple Chigger (insect) bites
Chigger larvae bites

Exploring the Green Cay Wetlands

1/7/2019
Today was our traveling day to Orlando and we opted to stop at the Green Cay Wetlands on our drive north.
Green Cay Wetlands is a 100-acre nature preserve located north of Fort Lauderdale in Boynton Beach. The preserve was converted from farmland into a county water reclamation facility in 2004 and naturally filters millions of gallons of water each day.

Map Link to Green Cay Wetlands

Photograph of the Green Cay Wetlands

A raised boardwalk provides a 1.5 mile walk through several habitat types with outstanding access to many species of birds and close-ups of alligators and turtles.

Photograph of an American Alligator at the Green Cay Wetlands
American Alligator

According to ebird, over 250 bird species have been recorded here. The first bird we saw, a Wood Stork, was actually flying directly overhead.

Photograph of a Wood Stork flying
Wood Stork

As we started along the boardwalk, we were greeted by an Anhinga, a Green Heron, multiple Common Gallinules and a young Gray-headed Swamphen.

Photograph of an Anhinga
Anhinga
Photograph of a Green Heron
Green Heron
Photograph of a Common Gallinule
Common Gallinule
Photograph of a young Gray-headed Swamphen
Gray-headed Swamphen – young bird

The boardwalk was very busy with lots of senior citizens completing their morning walks. At one point we passed through a dryer spot with lots of trees and many warblers. I was most excited to get a decent photo of a PINE WARBLER, which was not a true “lifer” for me, but was a “life photograph” of one.

Photograph of a Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler

Other songbirds included Yellow-throated, Palm, Black-and-white, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Redstart, Northern Parula and Blue-headed Vireo. I think the Black-and-white Warbler image turned out quite well!

Photograph of a Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

As we circled the wetlands, we were treated to more incredible views of Egrets, Herons, ducks, and ibis.

Photograph of the boardwalk and Visitor's Center at Green Cay Wetlands
Photograph of a Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron
Photograph of a pair of Blue-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal – pair
Photograph of a Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis

The pièce de résistance had to be an adult Gray-headed Swamphen displaying its full brilliant coloration. Stunning!

Photograph of an adult Gray-headed Swamphen
Gray-headed Swamphen

On the way out we stopped to watch the birds around the bird feeders and got glimpses of White-winged Doves, Common Grackles and female Painted Buntings

Photograph of a White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove
Photograph of a Common Grackle
Common Grackle
Photograph of a female Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting – female

Looking for Snail Kites

1/09/19
So, we were in Orlando, as a family, with plans to take our son to play the new Kingdom Hearts III Demo at Disney Springs and had a little time to kill before they opened. So of course I took the opportunity to try and see if I could espy one of my target trip life birds; Snail Kite. According to eBird, there was a county park (Brinson Park) at the northeast corner of Lake Tohopekaliga that seemed to show regular sightings of it. So I plugged the coordinates into my Apple Play and off we ran. As we reached the park, it became obvious that this was not going to work today as it was closed due to construction. I was a bit angry as this was my only chance to look for one on this trip. But since I still had time to kill, I decided to see if there was some spot to pull over and scan the lake. I noticed a sign for Brownie Wise Park and decided to give it a shot. I did not see it listed on ebird so I was skeptical that it would be any good.

Entrance sign to Brownie Wise Park

WOW, WAS I EVER WRONG! As we were entering the park area we saw an adult Bald Eagle off to the side.

Photograph of adult Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

I parked in the parking lot and walked a short distance to a platform and after 30 seconds of scanned, spotted a SNAIL KITE about 300 yards out, sitting in some vegetation.

Photograph of a distant Snail Kite
Snail Kite

It was too far away to get the kind of photo I wanted, but since it was a LIFER I was pretty excited. I waiting 20 minutes hoping it might fly in closer, but it never did. I could see two other quite distant Snail Kites across the lake. We left and headed in to Disney Springs where my son had a blast playing his video game demo

My son playing a video game demo for Kingdom Hearts III

After lunch we decided to head back down to Brownie Wise Park to see if we could get better looks at the kite. It wasn’t there at first, but shortly flew in and then lander. This time much closer!

Photograph of a Snail Kite
Photograph of a Snail Kite in flight

I spent the next hour wandering around the wetlands and inlets taking photos of Sandhill Cranes, Palm Warblers, Fish Crows and the Bald Eagle we had seen earlier in the day.

Photograph of a pair of Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes
Photograph of a Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes
Photograph of a Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Photograph of a flock of Fish Crows
Fish Crows
Photograph of an adult Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

The Stanislaus “Skulky” Swamp Sparrow Search

1/20/2019
It all started with a phone call from Harold. You know immediately when a call comes in from Harold on a Sunday that he’s got a good bird. The adrenaline kicks in, and my heart rate picks up as I answer, “Hey Harold.” And sure enough, he’s on a Swamp Sparrow over at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. I quickly posted the news on the Stanislaus listserve, not sure whether to run out to try and photograph it. So as I’m eating my sandwich, Maria asks what Harold called about (knowing that it had to be a “good” bird somewhere) and I explained “the bird” and that they are only seen about once every five or six years in the county and they are notoriously skulky (hard to see). She promptly replies with, “So, what are you doing just sitting here eating your sandwich? GO GET IT!” (I love how she supports my obsession!)

Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign
Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign

Map to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.

I pull in to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park on Hatch Road, Ceres expecting to be able to drive down to the usual parking spot at the bottom of the bluff. This park got a lot of attention by birders lately when Harold Reeve discovered Stanislaus County’s first ever record of a Black-throated Sparrow here, as well as hosting a Chipping Sparrow which can be hard to find on the valley floor.

Photograph of a Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow – Photographed at the Park October 17, 2017

This time though the drive down to the lower parking area was closed, and as I parked, I noticed Ralph Baker’s car right next to me. I eventually caught up to him and Kathy Rasmussen and they were standing with Harold and Sherrie Reeve. They had been watching the bird off and on for a while and pointed out to us the different spots they had seen it at. After about twenty minutes of fruitless searching, they decided to head out and the three of us remained, quietly listening, watching, listening and watching in vain for another hour. The pond area is quite scenic with reeds, willows and oak trees.

The Pond

As we waited I photographed some of the Canada Geese that were swimming around us.

pair of Canada Geese
Canada Geese
Canada Geese swimming
Canada Geese

Eventually I commented that I would need to leave in 20 minutes. They jokingly replied, “Well, then we will leave in 25 because it will pop up right after you leave!!!” I played a few calls off my Sibley’s Bird app. Not realizing that I had stopped the audio, Ralph asks, “Are you still playing the calls because I can still hear it calling…” I wasn’t sure if what we were hearing was a muffled Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler or our target bird. I walked out to the point and played the calls again. Ralph yelled out that a sparrow flew right over to where I was playing the call.

Swamp Sparrows belong to the Genus Melospiza which include the more locally common Lincoln’s Sparrow and Song Sparrow and can be a challenge to correctly identify. They are notorious for keeping in the shadows and “skulking” behind the vegetation.

Sure enough, the bird gradually walks out from the weeds, towards the back of a bunch of vegetation. I yelled at Ralph and Kathy and started trying to focus through the vegetation on the bird in the shadows. The angle was bad and the lighting poor, but I managed to get a couple of decent shots of the bird. It was a LIFER for Kathy and a Stanislaus County bird for Ralph.

Here’s a link to the list of the top Stanislaus County listers

Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Photo of a Swamp Sparrow on a branch
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

HOW TO ID A SWAMP SPARROW
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a winter, non-breeding (what birders refer to as basic-plumaged) adult has a white throat with a gray-washed breast and extensive reddish-brown in the wings (primary coverts). Here is an example of just such a bird from their website.

In Search of… Pink Birds

Today (January 10th, 2019) we were heading back down to Pembroke Pines and it would be our last opportunity for birding. One of my promises to Maria during our Texas vacation last year, was that we would see Roseate Spoonbills. When she and I had first visited Texas back in the late 90s, seeing Roseate Spoonbills was one of the most awesome encounters of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we struck out in TX. I was very hopeful that they would be present along the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR as they had been reported pretty much every day the past week.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge sign

As we turned on to the road, off to the side was a nice Tricolored Heron working its way slowly along the side of the road.

Photo of Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron

As luck would have it, barely a couple of minutes along the road was a single Roseate Spoonbill. I yelled out to Maria, “PINK BIRD ALERT, PINK BIRD!” We all jumped out of the car (me forgetting to put the car in park…) and got decent looks at one that wasn’t too far away, but it was directly into the sun.

Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill

I am always looking for yet better images of birds that I already have an image of, but I am especailly looking for “Life Photograph” birds. Those birds that I have seen, but never photographed. The next target was a bird that I had fair photos of, but nothing I would feel comfortable sharing with anyone other than my mother. REDDISH EGRET. This bird was in perfect morning light, with the sun at my back this time, not in my face.

Photograph of Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret

The next bird on the road was actually one of those “Lifer photo” birds, a WOOD STORK. We watched it walk along the channel and then fly across the small pond.

Photograph of Wood Stork
Wood Stork

Then we hit the jackpot. I knew something was happening ahead because there were a dozen cars stopped and some folks with really big lenses pointing to some birds right along the side of the road. The next several images can say more than my words ever could.

Photograph of White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill
Whie Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of White Ibis, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of White Ibis, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill flock
Roseate Spoonbills
Image of Roseate Spoonbill