Friday, October 3, 2014

South Florida 2014

During our five months at Lake Woodruff NWR we didn’t sit still, but our RV moving skills did get a bit rusty. When it came time to get back on the road, it took a bit of getting reacquainted with our moving routine. But like riding a bicycle, once you have the basics ingrained, it all came right back.

site at Big Cypress RV Resort
With a weather eye to the Midwest via our Wisconsin Facebook contacts, we gleaned that Old Man Winter had yet to fully release his grip. In no hurry to head directly north into the jaws of winter, we instinctively headed further south toward the Miami area where we found different birding habitat and where we hoped to add a few more bird species to our ABA life list.
Our first overnight was at the fairly remote Big Cypress RV Resort near Clewiston, FL in the Seminole Indian Reservation. Not a terribly remarkable stop but it did put us within easy striking distance of Stormwater Treatment Area 5 (STA5), a good place to search for a Purple Swamphen.

In the late 1990’s, the ABA recognized the Purple Swamphen as a species and thus, it was now countable to folks like us who keep such bird lists. The Purple Swamphen bares a strong resemblance to the Purple Gallinule but upon close inspection, have differentiating field marks. It didn’t take us long, on a hot and sunny day trek, to come across not one but several swamphens (and pick up a handful of FOY birds as well).

Purple Swamphen
Purple Gallinule
Moving the RV further south the next day we landed at Miami Everglades Resort in tropical southeast Florida habitat. Miami-Dade is an area that is well known to birders for having several exotic bird species. So what’s the big deal about exotics? You need to understand that many birders keep their life list according to the American Birding Association (ABA) taxonomic rules. 

site at Miami Everglades Resort
While some of the exotic birds found in southeast Florida are now countable according to ABA standards, several more are not…but someday, may BE countable. Not only were we looking for the “countable” species but we were also on a quest to add as many of the “uncountable”, or, as we refer to them, “pocket” birds. Pocket birds are species we metaphorically put in our pocket, banking that someday, it may become countable. This requires that we keep accurate records of all sightings as we travel (not only in the U.S. but abroad).
Case in point, take the recent splitting of the Clapper Rail into three separate ABA species: Mangrove Rail (Rallus longirostris), Ridgway’s Rail (Rallus obsoletus), and Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans). Because we had kept track of sighting Rallus obsoletus more than once in southern California (1998 and again in 2011), it meant that without ever stepping foot outside our RV, that we added another life bird when the ABA split the Clapper Rail in 2014. Lesson learned: keep track of subspecies sightings of all birds.
As for exotics in Florida, there are several small populations of escaped parakeets, parrots, and macaws. Most are not countable. At least not yet. These include Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, Black-hooded Parakeet, Blue-crowned Parakeet, Mitred Parakeet, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Red-masked Parakeet, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, White-eyed Parakeet, Lilac-crowned Parakeet, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, White-fronted Parrot, Orange-winged Parrot, Scaly-headed Parrot, Yellow-crowned Parrot, Yellow-headed Parrot, and Mealy Parrot. Quite a handful. As it turns out, many would not be life bird sightings for us because we've seen them in other countries. But, if the ABA ever lists any of these as countable, well, it would behoove us to see as many of these “pocket” birds as possible so that we might cash in on adding them later.
But exotics aren’t the only draw. Florida has become home to a number of species that have arrived and stayed from other parts of the world without human interference. Several are West Indian vagrants that make an occasional appearance. Black Noddy, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and Cuban Pewee are but a few that have graced southeast Florida with fleeting visits. To see them pretty much relates to being in the right place, at the right. Like the La Sagra’s Flycatcher we found when we last visited Miami in February of this year.
Now some people with deep pockets and with unlimited means at their disposal, can afford to chase birds whenever or wherever they may appear. We are definitely not in that category. On our shoe string RV budget, we have to plan far further ahead and simply be aware and ready for when a rare bird makes an appearance near us. Like we said - right place, right time.
Close to Miami we scoured Matheson Hammock Park (we were here the day we were departing on our Ecuador birding trip), the Baptist Hospital grounds, and Larry and Penny Thompson Park.

boardwalk at Everglades Anhinga Trail (with Double-crested Cormorant)
male Anhinga
Further afield we took day trips to several other locations. Places like Everglades NP: Main Park Entrance Ernst Coe Visitor Center, Royal Palm Visitor Center (Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail), Mahogany Hammock Trail, Flamingo Visitor Center, Rowdy Bend Trail, Eco Pond Trail, and Snake Bight Trail (replete with scores of mosquitoes that chased us out). While we did manage to pick up a few more first of year (FOY) birds, some of the specialties found in years past were no longer present due to numerous hurricanes in the Homestead, FL area.

Everglades Flamingo Visitor Center complex (great place for Shiny Cowbird)
view from the visitor center
Further afield in the Key Largo area: Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical SP, and John Pennekamp Coral Reef SP.
By in large we had done fairly well checking off more “pocket bird” species, plus we added a few southeast Florida ABA specialties we had missed on earlier visits (like Shiny Cowbird). One interesting observance occurred that involved bird behavior while we visited the Anhinga Trail/Gumbo Limbo Trail in Everglades NP. When we arrived at the parking lot we saw several vehicles covered with large blue plastic tarps…and a large number of vultures sitting atop vehicles. Apparently, the vultures had become accustomed to tearing off the rubber molding around windshields, sunroofs, and rubber windshield wiper blades, hence the need to cover vehicles. The park supplied the tarps free of charge. We chanced that parking away from the main parking area where several vehicles (and vultures) were clustered, might reduce a vehicular attack. But to be on the safe side, we also borrowed a tarp and bungees to cover the top of the truck just in case. By mid morning as the day heated up and thermals for the vultures began to build, the vultures departed. And we were pleased to still have functioning windshield wipers.

Red-shouldered Hawk atop the visitor center
Green Heron
The route to our next stop took us east across the Tamiami Highway (Hwy 90) to the Big Cypress National Preserve. Stopping along the way at Everglades Shark Valley Visitor Center, we fortunately were able to squeeze our truck and RV (with staff help) into what we would call a limited parking area.
The main attraction for most visitors at Shark Valley has nothing at all to do with sharks. Or a noticeable valley. Flat as a pancake. Why shark? The Shark Valley Slough empties into the Shark River which in turn is where Bull Sharks, able to survive in brackish water, come to breed. Are there sharks at Shark Valley? No - the water is too shallow. Lots of alligators, though.
The name "Valley" is also a stretch. On the Atlatic side is the "Atlantic Ridge", 18-20 feet above sea level. The Naples Plateau, also 18-20 feet in height is on the opposite side of Florida. In between, (Shark Valley and most of south Florida) the height is approximately 7-8 feet above sea level. So yes, technically speaking, Shark Valley is in a valley. Not by Swiss standards but a valley nonetheless. Pity the poor Europeans who visit with visions of sharks and valleys. How about Alligator Alley?
But Shark Valley does have a magnificent representation of saw grass prairie and offers a interpretive tram tour. Visitors may also rent a bicycle (or bring their own) and cycle the route. Due to time constraints, we opted to hike a short distance of the tram route along a Shark Valley Slough.

male Anhinga, breeding plummage
baby alligator
One of the ranger's informed us that sightings of medium-sized mammals is down by 99%, in large part due to the rapid increase of an invasive snake species: Burmese Python, that is out-competing native species. The study showed a drop of 99.3 percent among raccoons, 98.9 percent for opossums, 94.1 percent for white-tailed deer, and 87.5 percent for bobcats. Along roads where python populations are believed to be smaller, declines were lower but still notable. Rabbits and foxes, which were commonly spotted in 1996 and 1997, were not seen at all in later counts. In 2010 Florida banned private ownership of Burmese Pythons. U.S. Interior has since banned importation of Burmese Pythons and three other exotic snake species. Kudzu and imported fire ants and now Burmese Pythons. It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature...

our site in Midway Campground - quite and spacious
Big Cypess has ample room for camping (four campgrounds that accommodate RV's) and at this time of the year, finding space was no problem at all. It worked best for us to situate ourselves in the Midway Campground where we found an expansive corner site. From what we could determine, we were only one of three other units parked in the entire campground.

the length of this rig/trailer is illegal in several states
Not long after we had set up, a couple from Germany in a rental Class C pulled in next to us. Fortunately their grasp of English was better than our German as we learned about their travels in the U.S. and we explained our lifestyle. While we were chatting a behemoth of a Class A RV towing a double-decked trailer with a full-sized truck and fishing boat pulled through. The German couple had the RV stop so they could get a tour of the interior. Amazing that the people in the monster RV were full timers like ourselves. Whereas we had elected to jettison most of our "stuff" to be on the road - this couple had decided to bring as much with them as possible.

Carol and Lisa

You may recall that while we were at LWNRW we met Lisa Andrews, the education coordinator for Big Cypress National Preserve. Lisa had offered that “if we were ever in her neck of the woods”, to look her up and she’d show us around. So we did. And true to her word, Lisa loaded us into a Big Cypress NP vehicle at the Welcome Center and spent an entire day chaperoning us around some of the more inaccessible areas. Deep Lake Fire Station, Fire Prairie Trail, and scenic drives including: Upper Wagonwheel Road, Birdon Road, and Turner River Road. We hiked an area where Florida Panther are known to frequent. Alas, no panther sightings but we did find fresh scat and tracks. And maybe that was as close as we wanted to be…

area where Carol saved Lisa from stepping on a cottonmouth
Carol and Lisa look a bit distracted due to several alligators swimming their way
Deep Lake
From our very roomy spot in the Midway Campground in Big Cypress, we also managed stops at the Big Cypress Oasisi Visitor Center and the Kirby Storter Roadside Park and Boardwalk. It’s amazing just how much we can manage to cram into any given day.

Kirby Storter Park
After Big Cypress we finally turned north and after a relatively short drive, arrived at Bonita Lake RV Resort in Bonita Springs with enough time left in the day for a visit to Corkscrew Swamp. The last time either of us were at Corkscrew, they had recently completed the lengthy swamp boardwalk. Now some 35 years later, the project to completely restore/rebuild the original boardwalk had just begun. We didn’t envy the work but we certainly enjoyed the habitat.

immature Black-crowned Night-Heron
Barred Owl that landed next to us on boardwalk railing
The next day we revisited a few places we had been to when we visited our friends Laurel and Lynn earlier in the year in Sanibel: Ding Darling NWR, Six Mile Cypress Slough, and Bunch Beach Preserve. One bird that had eluded us thus far was the Mangrove Cuckoo. Again, not a life sighting as we’ve gotten this species in other countries. But try as we might, and in spite of several reported sightings at various locations, we whiffed on seeing any. Bummer. Maybe just bad cuckoo karma. In any event, when we left south Florida behind, so too, any chance of scoring a Mangrove Cuckoo. Pity. But putting things in perspective, missing one bird species can't overshadow all the experiences we managed to enjoy! Next up - one of our favorite parts of Florida - the Panhandle.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge: Winding Down

Following our return from Ecuador we had less than a month left of our five month volunteer commitment to Lake Woodruff NWR. How quickly time had passed. But even with just a month left there was still plenty to do.

2014 was the 50th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge system and while a full blown festival was out of the question, a refuge open house seemed very doable. With that in mind, work set about in earnest to make it happen.

some of the LEEF tour participants (Lisa is 4th from the left)
While open house planning was underway we kept occupied with our regular volunteer activities. More people were showing up for the regularly scheduled Saturday morning bird hikes plus we had additional requests for personal tours. One such request came from the League of Environmental Educators in Florida (LEEF) which was meeting in nearby Ocala National Forest. One of their scheduled field trips was a tour of Lake Woodruff NWR. The group included Ranger Lisa Andrews, the outreach/education specialist at Big Cypress National Preserve. Apparently our tour made such a favorable impression that Lisa invited us to look her up if we were ever at Big Cypress (a stop we had planned to make after we departed Lake Woodruff).

online and properly spaced with driptorches waiting for the word to begin
Chris Wright, LWNWR Supervisory Fire Technician overseeing the burn
Wes Allie, LWNRW Engineering Equipment Operator heading in to spark more fires
burn underway (top), post burn with palmetto gone and long leaf pines standing
As part of the refuge’s management plan, USFWS firefighters conducted a 137 acre prescribed burn at Lake Woodruff to reduce the wildfire risk (reduce palmetto understory) and enhance the wildlife habitat (mainly long leaf pine) on the southern end of the refuge in the Volusia Tract. Planning and implementation was overseen by our refuge’s Supervisory Fire Technician, Chris Wright, with the assistance of staff from Merritt Island NWR. A controlled burn isn’t simply a matter of lighting a match and standing back. It involved comprehensive pre-fire planning to cover all aspects of the burn to include weather conditions, constant monitoring once the fire had begun, and contingency plans for all possible “what if” scenarios. Once the burn was finished, there was on-site post burn monitoring for any flare ups and an overall critical assessment report. Tom was invited to observe the day-of-burn meeting and accompany the fire crews to document the burn. Photos of the burn are posted on the Southeast U.S. Fish and Wildlife flickr site. What the photos don’t impart is how intense the heat was, even at some distance away, nor the amount of sheer physical work the crews undertook walking through the dense palmetto understory while constantly monitoring any change in weather patterns and altering the timing of individual ignition spots.

visiting with the Doles, Larry and Carol
Faithful blog readers will recall that upon our return from the Canadian Maritime Provinces, we stopped in New Hampshire and parked at the home of Larry and Carol Dole for three nights. Larry and Carol were now in our neck of the woods and we were delighted to show them around the refuge and help them eek out a few life birds. Larry and Carol’s visit was also our excuse to finally visit De Leon Springs State Park (just down the road from our refuge). We had heard about the do-it-yourself pancake breakfast at the park’s Sugar Mill Restaurant. Then a ride on the St. John’s River Cruise through the Spring Garden Run, which borders the refuge property, out to Lake Woodruff and back, finally gave Carol an opportunity to see much more of the refuge (Tom had seen quite a bit of the refuge by water when he accompanied a field biologist to check Wood Duck nesting boxes earlier in the year).

visiting with the Rominaks, Bob and Claire
Bob and Claire Rominak, a couple from Wisconsin, were also vacationing in Florida. This was our first chance to meet Bob. Claire we knew from her having been on our 2008 and 2010 birding trips to Ecuador. Naturally we proudly walked them around part of the refuge  followed by a meal out.

Sunday, March 16, was the date for the refuge’s open house. All the volunteers had worked hard to bring the event to fruition by promoting it through local media and soliciting area businesses and organizations for donations of food and beverages. A chance meeting with Kevin Winchell, the Assistant Director of Community Engagement at nearby Stetson University (Deland Campus) and his wife Alicia on one of our Saturday morning bird hikes proved most beneficial. Kevin obtained a four-piece jazz combo comprised of university musicians to provide musical entertainment (they were fantastic!).

Dr. Terry Farrell, Stetson University Professor of Biology, shares his knowledge of the refuge's reptiles and amphibians with lance and Robyn's daughter, Ailish
Faculty and students from the university’s biology department provided a hands-on learning opportunity by encouraging children of all ages to net and identify fish, salamanders, aquatic insects and other pond life found in the refuge’s impoundments. Port Orange, FL wildlife rehabilitator Sheriann Wentworth, from the East Coast Wildlife Rehab Center, exhibited an Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl. The highlight of Sheriann’s visit was the release of a rehabilitated Great Egret into the refuge.

LR: LWNRW winter volunteers Ann Snyder, Dennis and Theda Farmer, Carol and Tom Sykes, Gail Palmer, Tom Snyder and kneeling, Lance Koch, refuge manager
The refuge displayed its own table top traveling exhibit along with one from Merritt Island NWR plus the local West Volusia Audubon Chapter. A cake cutting and brief speech by refuge manager Lance Koch commemorating the event wrapped up the festivities.

The refuge annually participates in many area festivals such as the Manatee Festival at Blue Springs State Park and the De Leon Springs Community Association (DSCA) “Among the Trees, Arts, Crafts and Music Festival” to name a few. This year Tom created a poster comprised of photos he had taken while working at the refuge to represent Lake Woodruff at this year’s DSCA event.

By late march a pair of Sandhill Cranes that had built a nest and incubated eggs in Pool 1 finally produced a pair of colts, much to the delight of all who had been following their progress. It wasn’t long before the youngsters were up and about as their parents started to take them on short forays for food almost from day one.

Meanwhile, a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers had begun chiseling a nest cavity in a dead tree next to the old headquarters building. What was fascinating about the nest building was the amount of wood chips - in the thousands - that littered the ground beneath the tree. Nest construction, mostly done by the male, may take upwards of three to six weeks with a finished depth of 10-24 inches. And while the original owners of the cavity typically don’t use the same cavity again, many other birds (other woodpeckers, wood ducks, flycatchers, or owls) or mammals (squirrels and raccoons) will find the cavity suitable in years to come. Nothing goes to waste in the wild and here was one more example of the importance of leaving a dead tree standing.
Late into our five month gig we discovered two excellent restaurants in DeLand. One a Thai restaurant, Oudom’s Thai and Sushi, and the other, the Dally in the Alley Bistro which used source ingredients from local area farms whenever possible. There were other eateries but these two were our favorites (along with Pitmasters BBQ just up the road).
During our time at Lake Refuge we certainly were made to feel a part of the “refuge family” as we had gotten to know the staff and their families quite well. Plus we had befriended several of the locals who were regulars on our bird hikes. While we had initially hoped to volunteer at Merritt Island NWR, in the end we were delighted with our being selected to volunteer at Lake Woodruff.

Working at a smaller refuge gave us the opportunity to be more than just a cog in a wheel and to make worthwhile, meaningful contributions.  We feel like we helped put the refuge a little bit more squarely on the map and educated all who we interacted with as to the importance of the refuge system. While we pretty much wound up doing what we would be doing anyway, it provided us yet one more opportunity to expand our knowledge of our natural world while having a great deal of fun.

Robyn Koch and volunteer Gail Palmer
Tom and Jerry Champa, his constant birding buddy at the refuge
Birders: Wes Carter, Carol Sykes, Amy Evanstad, Nancy Baron, Kevin and Alicia Winchell
our regular Saturday morning birder "gang of four": Cosmo, Jerry, Nancy, Wes
The last get together at the refuge was with Lance and his wife Robyn who hosted a potluck meal for the volunteers and staff at their home. Lots of laughter and recounting of our time at the refuge. While we won’t be returning (we had already made plans to travel west in 2014-15) we certainly will cherish our time at Lake Woodruff NWR. If you’re ever in Central Florida and wish to visit a gem of a refuge, you would be wise to search our Lake Woodruff NWR. You won’t be disappointed.

Note: We’ve since learned that Chris Wright has taken a position at another refuge in North Carolina and will be transferring shortly. And Lance Koch has taken a position as refuge manager at Neil Smith NWR, a tall grass prairie unit in Iowa (where we hope to stop and visit during our travels east and west). However, we’ve already informed Lance that we won’t be applying for any winter volunteer positions at Neil Smith. Iowa in the winter? No way!