Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Best. Spring Break. Ever. (Part 1)

Look at this guy. Really. Just look at him. Then look in the mirror and ask yourself how you could possibly deserve to share a planet with a creature this gorgeous.

And once you've scraped your jaw back off the floor, take a deep breath and try to convince a non-birder that Painted Buntings are not exotics imported from the jungles of Borneo, but fellow Americans: they winter in Florida and summer in Texas and Oklahoma, according to The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America .

My week-long spring break was filled with such wonders. After my brief trip to California, Glenn followed me back to Gainesville for two weeks of Florida birding and bird photography. Upon arriving at my place, he immediately scored four lifers: Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice were flocking my feeder, along with the usual flock of Chipping Sparrows.

I couldn't wait to show him everything I'd seen. Normally, I love birding alone, but it's sad to see something great and have nobody to share it with, and I've had too many sad moments birding in Gainesville. So I planned a dream day of photographer-friendly birding for our first full day together in Florida: a morning at Lake Wauberg, in the southern part of Paynes Prairie State Park , followed by a break for the excellent pizza at nearby Blue Highway in Micanopy, then an afternoon looking at gators and waders at La Chua Trail.

As we entered the park and headed towards Lake Wauberg, we saw a large herd of deer and a flock of Wild Turkeys (another lifer for Glenn) just off the side of the road. Things were looking good. In the trees by the lake, I heard an insistent drone of an unfamiliar song, and discovered that the Northern Parulas were back in force. To Glenn's frustration, they stayed high in the treetops, resisting most of our attempts to photograph them. This was the best I could do:

We spent a couple of hours at the boardwalk by the lake, watching Bald Eagles, Anhingas, and Grey Catbirds—all typical birds around here, but uncommon or non-existent back in California.

The birding at La Chua was unremarkable, but still fun: we got there around 2:30, and most of the herons and egrets seemed to have gone missing, but the afternoon sun brought out a jaw-dropping inventory of reptiles: dozens of turtles of all shapes and sizes, alligators ranging in size from 8 inches to 8 feet, and ponds covered with slithering black water snakes. Here's a soft-shelled turtle with a very odd nose:

We were the last ones to leave the park before it closed (the ranger locked the gate behind us as we pulled out of the parking lot). But just before leaving, I stopped by the horse barn near the trailhead to look for the now-resident Harris' Sparrow, which I thought would be a great treat for Glenn—and he found it before I did! Yet another lifer for him.

After leaving La Chua, we dropped by the Paynes Prairie overlook off Highway 441 to see if anything interesting was coming in as the sun set. The area sounded birdy, and there seemed to be flying critters everywhere. Unfortunately, a preponderance of these were mosquitos, so we beat a quick retreat for home.

It had been a day of doing things I'd done a million times before since moving out here, but it was the most fun I've ever had here. Having someone to share the fun with makes all the difference.

And in the next few days, the birding was only going to get better.

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