Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ocala National Forest: A Sucky Photo Super-Post!

An early morning treat, badly captured, near Ocala National Forest.

The observant may have noticed that I've managed to stretch three days of vacation into three weeks of blog posts. There are a few of reasons for this: first, Glenn and I collectively got thousands of photos out of our trip, and at least some of them had to go to good use; second, it really was the BEST birding trip I ever had (so far).

And third and most crucially, the birding in Gainesville since then has been pretty dull: most of our winter birds are gone (except for the gluttonous Chipping Sparrows who now camp out my courtyard and require me to buy a 5-pound bag of feed EVERY WEEK), and spring migration here is only showing hints of starting. While the trees and bushes back in California are swarming with Hermit and Nashville and Black-throated Grey Warblers (and Hooded and Bullock's Orioles and Warbling Vireos), here we've got...well,not much. Yet.

And yet, yesterday there arose an opportunity to see a rare local treat: this week's Alachua Audubon field trip was to Ocala National Forest , where our goal birds were Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Florida Scrub Jays, and Bachman's Sparrows. All but the Florida Scrub-Jay—which I had only seen once before, at Merritt Island—would be lifers for me; and the seriously endangered Red-cockaded would be a valued treat for anyone who cares about birds.

The trip was everything I had hoped for: several of my favorite local birders showed up, we got just about everything we wanted to see, and the weather was great. The only problem was that all my photos sucked.

For instance, there's this photo of a Bachman's Sparrow, which we saw shortly after we parked and started our hike. We could hear the sparrows almost as soon as they arrived, and this guy popped up only minutes later.He wasn't that far away, but I still missed a good shot:

I figured my sparrow shots would be barely worthy of being called documentary shots. But no matter: what I really wanted was to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and get a semi-identifiable photo.

We soon came upon a stand of trees where a colony of the woodpeckers had been known to nest. The birds nest in tree holes, and there were some trees with nest boxes already inserted, just for them:

All the trees with Red-cockaded nests—either manmade or bird-made—were conspicuously marked with rings of white paint:

This should have been our clue as to where to look—but the nest trees, even the ones that looked recently used, were quiet. But we heard the chattering of woodpeckers in the distance, and soon saw flashes of black and white against the pines—there they were!

I raised my camera to get a shot, but then lowered it: the birds were too far; the shot wouldn't be any good.

Then the birds took off, still chattering, and we followed. Along the way, I saw this Swallowtail, with a messed-up left back wing. I'm not sure what kind he is:

The chattering continued, and we followed it into the woods. We got good looks at about three birds—but every time I lifted my camera, they'd fly off or do that annoying woodpecker thing of hopping around to the opposite side of the tree. A few us us broke away from the group and plowed deeper into the woods. In the distance, the birds called and swooped from tree to tree, allowing great looks—and took off before we could get them in our viewfinders.

The others in our group were ready to move on, so we gave up our hunt. Now I was kicking myself for not at least trying to get a shot at that first RCW—he was far away, but at least he was standing still. We left the pine-filled sandhill area of the forest for an area of scrub nearby. Here, we hoped to find some Florida Scrub-Jays.

The path through the scrub was covered with fine sand, almost like very dry compacted beach sand. The sand was covered with several new-looking sets of animal prints: little canine ones that must have come from a coyote or fox (the trail was out of the way, and unlikely to appeal to dog-walkers—and no human prints but ours were in evidence), and several sets of bird prints, including these:

We were fascinated by the odd trailing marks behind the prints: was the bird (which must have been crow-sized) dragging its feet? Its tail?

The Scrub-Jays, as we hoped, came through: a pair of them soon popped up, screeching loudly at a nearby Eastern Towhee. Scrub-Jays are notoriously bold, and both birds came close enough to allow potentially decent shots:

Unfortunately, it was high noon by time we got there, and the sunlight and glare off the white sand made everything look oddly backlit. So despite having the most cooperative of avian subjects, this photo still sucked. But at least the bird is clear and identifiable.

And all the best images of the day are stuck in my brain. Luckily, I have a really good memory.

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