Sunday, November 16, 2008
Beautiful but birdless: weekend scenery from La Chua Trail
This should have been a great weekend for birding, but for some reason, it wasn't. It started promisingly enough, with an Alachua Audubon field trip to Tuscawilla Prairie, an undeveloped tract of marshy prairie just outside the unbearably cute little town of Micanopy.
It had rained the night before, and was still drizzling that morning, so the ground was thick with mud when we arrived. I hate mud. There were no trails on the prairie, so we powered our way across the muddy expanse through 6-foot high dog fennel and other vegetation. We were headed towards an even wetter and muddier area where ducks and shorebirds had been seen, and as the mud got thicker,my feet got wetter and wetter. And then I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left leg—as though someone had impaled it with hundreds of hot needles.
I looked down and saw a swarm of fire ants crawling up my leg. Their nests are usually easy to see and avoid, but not out there.
"Try to brush them off the best you can, " one of the other birders said, and I did—but then they started biting my hands as well.
This made it hard to focus on the birds. Which was a shame, as there were some good ones out there. Sedge Wrens were everyone, skulking in the underbrush and checking us out with their beady black eyes. Lots of Savannah and Swamp Sparrows, and potentially others as well—but I was in too much pain and not in any mood to race though the mud and and mosquito-filled brush to find them.
On the way back into Gainesville, we stopped at a little pond (actually, within walking distance of my place) that looked, as one of my carpool mates said, "shorebirdy." This was a fair assessment: we found both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, a Least Sandpiper, and a couple of Wilson's Snipes. This was the first time I'd seen one of these close up:
I hoped Sunday would be better: I had planned to get together with some other local birders to look for wintering sparrows off the La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie. The rain had passed, and the sky was bright and cloudless. While waiting in the parking lot for the others to arrive, I saw large feeding flocks of Palm Warblers, and watched several Northern Flickers flying from tree to tree. Near the trailhead, we immediately spotted about half a dozen sparrows darting through the brush: Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows (the first of the season for me), and a Vesper Sparrow. Here's an immature White-crowned Sparrow:
Things were looking promising.. until a cold, gusty wind abruptly set it, sending all the small birds diving for cover. During the rest of our walk, we saw only a few Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Phoebes. As a consolation prize, though, we did get some good looks at raptors: a pair of Northern Harriers, and a pair of American Kestrels, as well as Red-tailed and Cooper's Hawks. We also got a good look at several wild hogs and missed—apparently, by only a minute—seeing a herd of wild bison that passing hikers kept telling us about.
Another local birder had just scored 10 sparrow species at La Chua last week, and it was clear that we weren't going to get even close to this.
But a weekend of bad birding is better than a weekend with no birding. And the bad days make the good days even better.