Bird Every Bird

I was driving home from work this afternoon. It was an overcast, chilly, unprepossessing day, and I had no greater ambitions than to crash for the evening. I drove past the pond on Black Squirrel Creek and saw a small flock of geese gathered around the one tiny opening in the ice. It occurred to me that some of them seemed rather small, and I wondered if they might be Cackling Geese.

Thirty yards further along, I turned onto the street that takes me back to my neighborhood. I spotted another small flock of geese walking along the sidewalk next to an office building. I thought, “Those are definitely Canadas.” But the split second that it took me to glance at them was enough for me to notice that one looked different. I made a quick U-turn and saw that I was right. A juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose was at the tail-end of the parade.

I drove home, got my camera, and walked back. By the time I arrived, the geese had walked across the parking lot and were foraging on the lawn along Voyager Road.

I walked slowly to get to where the little sunlight poking through the overcast was behind me and took photos for about 10 minutes. Greater White-fronted Geese aren’t so rare in El Paso County that birders will come from Connecticut to see one. But they are rare enough that sightings are added to the El Paso County Rare Bird Report. I’m sure the drivers of the cars passing me on Voyager thought I was a moron for taking photos of neighborhood geese, but then, they won’t get their names on the Rare Bird Report, will they?

Postscript: Next morning

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It was two years and one day ago that somebody first found the Western Screech-Owl at Clear Spring Ranch in extreme southern El Paso County. It would have been a lifer for me then, and I drove the 32 miles from my house to see it. I didn’t see it. Other birders kept seeing it, so I drove down again. And again. I knew exactly where it chilled at the entrance to its hole on sunny afternoons. I just kept picking the wrong afternoons. I even took time off work to see it.

Finally, about three months later, I saw a Western Screech-Owl. But not this one. I saw one somewhere else.

A year ago, this one was back in its spot. Or so other birders said. I didn’t have the same degree of desperation anymore, but whenever I was down that way, I stopped in at Clear Spring Ranch to look for it. I never saw it that winter either.

And then this past November, it was reported to be back again. I still needed a Western Screech-Owl for my El Paso County list, but more than that, I needed to see this owl. It had become something of an obsession. Already in 2020, I’d made two tries for it.

I tried again today, but this time was different. I saw the owl. After at least 15 tries over the past three years, I finally saw the owl.

Now that you know what it looks like up close, can you find it in the tree?

I wandered the trails nearby in hopes of scaring up something else interesting, like the Ladder-backed Woodpecker that’s seen there once in a while. I didn’t see it, but I did find another owl about half a mile away. This one was a Great Horned Owl.

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It was the final break on the final day of the conference. I was footloose and fancy free from 3:00 until 4:15. But it was hot, as it had been all week. The daytime temperatures were around 85° and the humidity was in high. I was tired. I’d had some sort of allergic reaction in the morning and broke out in hives, and the benadryl had me pretty wiped out. I was very tempted to head up to my room and take a nap.

All week I’d spent my breaks outside looking for birds, but my breaks on this day were relatively unproductive. I’d achieved my modest goals.

Add Snail Kite and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck to my life list.

See at least 19 new birds for the year to bring my 2020 up to 100 in January. and then some

See at least 26 birds I hadn’t seen in Florida to bring my Florida life list up to 100.

But then I got to thinking that I may never get to Florida again. I got to thinking that if I took a nap, I might not sleep that night. And I remembered the cute little saying I made up long ago that I often share with others: “If you go outside, you might not see anything. If you don’t go outside, you won’t see anything.”

So I grabbed my binoculars and my camera and headed out. I went first to the pond next to the hotel, but there was nothing happening this afternoon. I stood in the shade and listed, but the world around me was quiet. I scanned the sky to see if any raptors were soaring overhead. And then I scanned the tops of the trees to see if anything was perched there. I didn’t see any birds, but I did notice an unusual shape. It was high in a pine about 300 yards away—on the other side of the pond and a six-lane highway. Here’s a photo from my closest position. If you enlarge it, you can see a circle around the cat.

Out loud I asked, “What is that?” But I was pretty sure it was a Bobcat. It turned its head and I could see the cat profile. I circled the pond, crossed the highway, and got as close as I could, probably 100 yards from the base of the tree.

The Bobcat had its haunches wedged into a fork near the trunk and was bracing itself with its front legs on a thin branch lower down. It didn’t look like a comfortable position, but the cat didn’t seem to mind. It casually looked around, shifting its hindquarters a bit now and again. It definitely knew I was there. In many of my photos, it’s staring right at me. I was no longer tired and I no longer cared about the heat and humidity. This was worth it.

I watched and took photos for about 15 minutes, then crossed back over the highway and wandered about. As I went back inside 40 minutes or so later, I looked for it again. As far as I could tell, it hadn’t moved.

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Reptile/Amphibian #30 — Brown Anole

anolis sagrei

Wednesday, January 15, 2020 — 3:30 pm

Orlando, Florida — Disney Springs

I zipped over to Disney Springs from my hotel one afternoon for about half an hour to see if a Roseate Spoonbill was hanging about. I didn’t spot the bird, but I did manage a photo of a tiny lizard. It was one of several I saw, but the only one that hung around long enough for a portrait. It was probably four inches long.

The Brown Anole isn’t native to Florida, but it’s made itself right at home. Since it spends most of its time on or near the ground, supposedly it’s driven the native Green Anole up into the trees. I saw it dash to this spot, but I didn’t see what happened after I took the photo because I had other goals.

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Bird #553 — Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

dendrocygna (from dendron, tree, and cygnus, swan) autumnalis (belonging to autumn)

Wednesday, January 15, 2020 — 7:23 am

Winter Garden, Florida — Newton Park on Lake Apopka

This was the lifer I was shooting for, but eBird sightings at Newton Park are spotty. However, there are a couple of retention ponds within a couple miles of the park where the ducks have often been seen lately. My plan was to go to Newton Park and see the Snail Kites and look around, then head for the retention ponds.

But maybe 15 minutes after I spotted the Snail Kite, I heard a flock of ducks go over making a high-pitched whistling sound. The ducks were silhouetted against the rising sun, but with my binoculars I could make out what they were. There were perhaps 12 in the flock. A few minutes later, a second flock went over. I managed a lousy photos as they went by.

That wasn’t at all satisfactory. But I didn’t have long to wait for another chance. I did a little better this time. It’s still a lousy photo, but at least this one is diagnostic. The ducks are lanky, with long necks, bold white wing patches, and red bills.

Finally a flock went over that gave me one brief chance to take a better photo.

And that was it. I gave myself enough time to check out the retention ponds because I really wanted to see them on the ground or in the water, but the ponds were empty today. If I had an hour or so, there’s a good chance I could have driving around the neighborhood and found them somewhere, but I had to get back. At least I saw them and got a diagnostic photo.

Historically, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were only found in the U.S. along the Mexican border. In recent years, their numbers have been increasing and their range has been extending north. They nest and roost in trees. This was probably one of the most common North American birds I hadn’t seen yet.

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Bird #552 — Snail Kite

rostrhamus (from rostrum, beak, and hamus, hook) sociabilis (sociable, gregarious)

Wednesday, January 15, 2020 – 7:06 a.m.

Winter Garden, Florida – Newton Park on Lake Apopka

I traveled to Orlando with a group from my work for the Children’s Pastors’ Conference. In a moment of weakness, I decided not to stay and extra day to bird. Instead, I’d get up early one morning and drive half an hour north to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive where I had a very good chance of seeing four lifers. But then I realized that I’d only have about 40 minutes to bird before I had to leave to get back to the first session of the conference. I pretty much gave up on birding when my boss, Cynthia, greeted me one morning by giving me permission to skip the first session on Wednesday. That meant I’d have two hours to bird. I started getting excited again—until I did some research and found out the wildlife drive is only open on weekends. I sighed and looked for a plan B.

I found Newton Park, a small strip of lawn and playgrounds on the edge of the lake in the town of Winter Garden. The whole park is maybe 15 acres, all of it groomed. But the lake is shallow and weedy and local birders regularly reported a large number of birds. One of these was a Snail Kite, which would be a lifer. With a chance at a second lifer nearby (next post) it seemed worth my while. I rented an economy car from the Enterprise booth in the hotel I was staying at. Or at least I thought I did. When I went to pick it up, I discovered that I’d stupidly made the reservation for the following week. The kind young woman behind the desk explained to me that they don’t keep cars there. When someone makes a reservation, they order a car from the airport Enterprise. But they did happen to have a pickup, and they would give it to me for my economy car rate. Which was very nice of them.

That’s why I found myself driving through the early morning darkness to Winter Garden in a Dodge Ram 1500 for two hours of birding. It got light enough to actually see birds at 7:00, which was when the park opened. I arrived at 6:57. I parked the truck, gathered my camera and binoculars and headed across the parking lot.

I hadn’t been birding five minutes when I saw a Snail Kite land on the railing of a short boat-launching dock and begin feeding on an apple snail. I was maybe 50 feet away. It was that easy. It was still very early and not yet very light. My camera compensated and that’s why the photo is a bit blurry. Notice also the second Snail Kite out over the lake in the background swooping for a snail. Both of these are females. There was a slate-gray male flying over the lake, but I never managed a photo.

For the nearly two hours I was there, at least one Snail Kite was almost always in view. This is the same bird about an hour later, after the sun was up. It was perched in a tree right next to the dock where I first saw it.

I saw it again later on the end of a second, longer dock.  My guess is that the Boat-tailed Grackle was hoping to steal the snail.

The snails in the first and third photos are apple snails, pretty much the exclusive diet of Snail Kites—hence the hooked bill. The kites are common in Central and South America, but only reach the U.S. in Florida where a 1,000 or so live. Their wings were broad and they flew with loose, floppy wing beats fairly close to the water. When they spotted a snail, the flopped down and grabbed it with their talons.

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Morning at Newton Park

When I arrived at Newton Park on Lake Apopka, the sun hadn’t risen and things were quiet. Very shortly thereafter, it got light enough and birds began materializing out of thin air. Or so it seemed. They were everywhere. I saw the two lifers I was shooting for (next posts) within minutes of arriving, so I had plenty of time to wander back and forth along the sidewalk that bordered the lake. The park was only about 1,500 feet from end to end. I walked back and forth three or four times, walked out to the end of the fishing pier, and even walked a block into the mobile home park next door to get a view of the lake further down. I only saw 28 species in the almost two hours I was there, but there were hundreds of birds around.

Here’s what I saw in no particular order.

This alligator looks ferocious but it was only about three feet long.

Common Gallinule. One of probably 100 in the area.

Fish Crow

Glossy Ibis

Female Boat-tailed Grackle

Male Boat-tailed Grackle (I promise you that I did absolutely nothing to this photo except crop it.


A different Limpkin with a juvenile Little Blue Heron right behind it.

Adult Little Blue Heron

Juvenile Little Blue Heron. You can just see a very few blue feathers beginning to show.

Osprey. There were at least four in the immediate area. You know you’re having a good day of birding when Ospreys become old hat.

Ring-billed Gulls

Brown-headed Cowbird. I somehow missed the Bronzed Cowbird that was seen before and after I was there. But it wasn’t for lack of looking.

Red-winged Blackbird (with some kind of grown on its foot)

Purple Gallinule

Snowy Egrets

Tricolored Heron. This bird has a terrible name.

Green Heron under the pier

There were Anhingas all over the place.

I took the photo of this male at Disney Springs.

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The Birds of Caribe Royale

I finished registering at the hotel by 4:30. By 4:40, I was outside with my binoculars and camera. I’d spotted a flock of White Ibises on the lawn as we pulled in the entrance, so that’s where I headed first. Here, in no particular order, are the birds I spotted by the hotel during the three days (and one hour on Monday) that I was there.

White Ibis. The one on the right is a juvenile. The one on the left isn’t quite into its adult plumage. A flock of about 10 were on the grounds constantly, often foraging right next to the sidewalks. They weren’t tame, exactly, but they certainly weren’t afraid of people.

A Wood Stork. This bird was standing along the edge of the pond not more than 10 feet from traffic on a six-lane highway. I walked around to get the photo in good light, and also so it didn’t look like the bird was standing not more than 10 feet from traffic on a six-lane highway. Later in the week, I saw it, or another one, foraging along the edges of the pond. I know there were at least three in the area because early one morning there were two on the pond and a third one flew over. I was pretty happy about this because my only previous sighting of a Wood Stork was a distant look in South Carolina in 1990, thirty years ago.

One of dozens of Palm Warblers that were flitting about every time I went outside.

Pine Warbler

Male Eastern Bluebird

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Eastern Phoebe

Northern Mockingbird

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Egret

Common Ground-Dove

Male Boat-tailed Grackle. In the late afternoon sun, this is really what he looked like.

Female Anhinga. This bird hung around by the boardwalk behind the convention center all week.

Blue-headed Vireo at Disney Springs

During the three days, I saw 40 species near the hotel. By the end of the week, I had 122 birds on my 2020 list. On January 16!

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