Monday, May 23, 2011

Birding at the End of the World

On Saturday, the world was going to end and the righteous among us were to ascend bodily to Heaven. Since we figured we wouldn't be going, we decided to try birding at Cedar Key instead.

It's a good thing we did, too: the birding was great. Not amazing fallout day great, but quite good for a day at the tail end of an unusually slow spring migration.

We weren't expecting much. But we did know of a spot where a good sighting was almost guaranteed: the Cedar Key Scrub Preserve, where we found three Florida Scrub-Jays in the exact same place where we saw them (or their cohorts) on our last few visits.

It would be more precise to say the Scrub-Jays found us. "Isn't that a Scrub-Jay?" our friend Elizabeth asked, pointing at a backlit bird on top of a tree about 50 feet away. Before we could answer, the bird swooped down--and landed on a bush right by the trail! His friends soon followed. Yup, it was a Scrub-Jay!

We spent about half an hour enjoying their company (and not seeing much else) before taking off to Shell Mound, part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. I brought my spotting scope in hope of getting some good shorebirds, but we only saw the usual suspects: Willets, Semipalmated Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Once we got to Cedar Key proper, we noticed a Kingbird working the trees and utility poles right by the lot where we parked. I figured it was just an Eastern Kingbird -- I haven't seen one in a while and even "easy" flycatchers throw me -- but I never remembered them having such large bills:

Elizabeth pulled out her ever-present Sibley guide and I was happy to realize I was wrong: it was a Gray Kingbird, a bird that almost never appears in Gainesville, but does show up occasionally at Cedar Key. Even better, we soon found, there were TWO of them.

We saw both of them dash repeatedly in and out of a tree in the parking lot, which led to another discovery: they weren't only hanging out there, they were NESTING there! It was a life bird for Glenn, and a very cooperative one at that.

While in the parking lot, we ran into a birder who said he had seen a family of Great Horned Owls roosting in the cemetery a few weeks earlier. After a break for (a very tasty) lunch, we headed there and started looking into the trees.

No owls. But Elizabeth spotted a late Blackpoll Warbler, and we watched flocks of fledgling Northern Cardinals chasing their parents around the headstones, begging for food. We stood there and considered the striking juxtaposition between those energetic new little lives and the silence of the long-gone ones memorialized just underfoot.

Our best sighting came near the end of our day. While on the boardwalk overlooking the water by the cemetery, we saw a large vulture fly by. Only it wasn't a vulture: it was flying fast over the water, rising higher into the air until it disappeared over the cemetery. Its flight and wing shape and color were wrong for a vulture, it had the head and beak of a hawk, but it wasn't one of our usual suspects--what was it?

Glenn managed to get off a quick documentary shot:

Elizabeth pulled out her Sibley guide again, and then we had an answer: the closest thing our bird resembled in the book was a dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk -- an uncommon bird for this area. Back home, we e-mailed the picture to some expert local birders who confirmed our guess and told us that a pair of them had been nesting nearby at Shell Mound. Our third great hyper-local bird of the day.

It was too good a day for the world to end.


Floridacracker said...

Cedar Key is a great place for birds you don't find a few miles inland. Great post!

Felicia said...

FC--It is indeed! That's why Gainesville birders make a point of going at least a couple times a year. Thanks for dropping by!

Jen said...

Great post! Congrats on all the good birds and for not being sucked up to heaven or whatever was supposed to happen during the rapture...

Felicia said...

Jen--Luckily, nobody got sucked up into the sky that day, but it was rapturous in its own way!

Anonymous said...

Question about kingbirds. My husband and I were at the track at Santa Fe College in Gainesville last night and I think we saw gray kingbirds. Has anyone else seen them in Gainesville?