Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge: Settled In

Our first Saturday bird hike had a grand total of two participants: us. Not surprising since refuge bird hikes had not been held often nor regularly, plus, we had barely gotten the word out. But by the end of November and into the beginning of December, a few locals who ranged from the experienced to just beginning, had become Saturday morning regulars. Added to the mix were birders from the upper Midwest and Northeast on vacation. And, on a few occasions, an outing by a birding club would boost attendance. While we were out on the refuge most days anyway, it was much more fulfilling when we could share our sightings.

Seminole Audubon Chapter
Most mornings, Wes Allie made his rounds of the impoundments to check water levels and look for anything out of the ordinary. Not a birder himself, nevertheless, his birds sightings proved extremely useful and were often followed up by one or both of us walking out to check things out. His comments were particularly useful in monitoring fluctuations of wintering duck populations in pool 2.

pool 2
As we continued to make more contacts with all visitors, not just birders, we felt that as representatives of the refuge we should always wear our refuge shirts, hats and name badges whether we were “on the clock” or not. As a result people were much more willing to become engaged and often ask questions. Carrying a scope as we did, we were able to share a closeup look through the scope, specially most satisfying to the non-birders who typically didn’t carry any optics. Kids and young adults especially enjoyed seeing wildlife in a new light.

Lincoln Sparrow
Use of the scope coupled with the iPhone’s camera (digiscoping) lead to capturing most of the still photos and videos that appeared on the refuge’s Facebook page. The phone was attached using an adapter made by KOWA, which made it possible for extreme closeups of wildlife that would otherwise require extremely bulky and expensive photo gear.

Merritt Island NWR
During November we began to explore further afield. Our first visit was to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) located thirty-nine miles south of Daytona Beach. Oddly enough, establishment of MINWR began with the U.S. space program in 1950 when a missile testing range named Cape Canaveral was started. In 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operations at the Cape. In 1962, the federal government acquired over 140,000 acres of the land, water, and marshes adjacent to the Cape to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center. After the center was built, most of the remaining area was not needed for development and in 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to establish Merritt Island NWR. And in 1975, to establish the Canaveral National Seashore. Today the northern half of the refuge, about 20 miles of the 35 mile long refuge, is open to the public (although during space shuttle launches, most of the public roads were temporarily closed).

birds along the Black Point Wildlife Drive
Scrub Trail
For birders, MINWR is a major destination, mainly in the cooler months of October through November when hundreds of thousands of birds use the refuge as a temporary rest stop, or, to spend the entire winter. The refuge manages more than 70 impoundments and maintains dike roads including the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Hiking trails cut through major habitats of scrub and pine flatwoods as well as oak and palm. MINWR is one of the best locations in Florida to the state’s one endemic bird species: the Florida Scrub-Jay.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Scrub-Jays are excellent examples of a cooperative-breeding species where adult birds help raise offspring not of their own and where fledged offspring remain in their parents’ territory for several years. Scrub-Jays are also inquisitive and intelligent, attributes that make these birds extremely tame.

Florida Scrub-Jay - inquisitive and fearless
Following a drive through the auto tour and a brief visit to the seashore and visitor center, we parked at the Scrub Trail trail head. Signage at the trail head warned not to harass or feed scrub-jays. Walking through the scrub we listened and watched for scrub-jay presence but as we have since learned, you don’t find them - they find you. We knew they were tame and had heard reports of birds landing on people but, when a scrub-jay suddenly swooped in and landed on Tom’s head, it was still a bit of a shock. Apparently the scrub-jays are free to harass visitors. Just not the other way around.
For the next five minutes or so four scrub-jays continued to investigate. They perched in nearby shrubs, landed on outstretched hands and arms, and investigated boot laces. Then as quickly as they appeared, they vanished.

Tom and Ann Snyder staffing the refuge table at a festival
Early in December, the remaining volunteer couple, Tom and Ann Snyder arrived. Like us, Tom and Ann are full time RVers who alternate their seasons by moving north and south to avoid winter. Like Dennis and Theda, Tom and Anne were returning volunteers which made us the new kids on the block. Between us, Tom and Ann, Dennis and Theda, and Gail we managed to fill all the visitor center shifts. Ann kept busy overseeing the visitor center butterfly garden while Tom joined Dennis to work on various maintenance projects. Along with Gail’s expertise, we became a formidable volunteer force!

yes, that white stuff is not sand on a beach
By December, and with a full compliment of volunteers, we were able to get away for a long weekend visit with Chris and his family in Colorado. We had missed seeing them earlier in the year what with our travels east.

view from Chris and Robyn's home in Summit Cove
Ah, yes. That's why they call it a snow scraper.
As were most of the northern tier states of the U.S., Colorado was also having a record breaking winter season. That would be record cold weather - not warm weather. When we boarded our plane in Orlando, the temperature was in the low 80’s. When we landed in Denver, the temperature was in the upper teens…but with a minus sign. We’d experienced a 100 degree drop which was a bit of a shock given that we had no winter clothes.

breakfast at the Mountain Lyon and tree hunting success
However, most of our time was spent indoors or in heated vehicles and the excitement of seeing Chris, Robyn, Callie and Carter far overshadowed any discomfort we might have felt from the cold. Well, mostly. Besides, it wasn’t like we were going to be in the cold weather for an extended period.

you can open gifts but not until the tree is decorated
We went Christmas tree hunting followed by a family tree decoration. Carol and Robyn shopped for Christmas gifts so we were able to celebrate an early Christmas gift opening much to the delight of Callie and Carter. What kid wouldn’t like having more than one Christmas in a given year? The smell of fresh pine and kids beaming made for a heartwarming early holiday.

You can see the trail left where the truck slid off the road (far right)
Fortunately for us, Chris was able to take time off from work at Copper Mountain to pick us up at the Denver airport and then drop us off. Instead of staying on the Interstate, part of our route back to Denver took us over Loveland Pass. With its hairpin turns it's a particularly dangerous pass in the winter. But, then there were beautiful snow-covered vistas which we would not normally see during our summer Colorado visits that made the detour worth the risk. Loveland is also the only route for trucks carrying hazardous materials that are not allowed to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel. On our way down the east side we came upon a recovery effort of a tractor trailer that had gone over the side. No idea of any injuries but we learned that shortly after we had passed the crash site, the pass was closed for several hours to allow huge wreckers the road space needed to retrieve the semi which had become lodged in trees several hundred feet below the roadside.
How appropriate to have the 1st Limpkin we saw on the refuge show up on the CBC
December was also when the West Volusia Audubon Chapter held its annual Christmas Bird Count. We offered to help WVA member Dave Stock cover the section of the count circle that included the refuge impoundments. We also searched the East Tract and part of the Volusia Tract while Dave continued searching elsewhere. Not nearly the numbers we were used to tallying when we did CBC’s in South Texas but we did manage to add a handful of species not found by other count participants. Total count: 117 species (12,856 birds) in all. Not the highest CBC count for the chapter but it tied the second highest.
Our own Christmas celebration was pretty subdued as we enjoyed some Facetime chats with Jennie and Alrick, phone calls with Melissa, Graham and Caitlin, and Marge. Knowing that so many of our friends and family were enduring what turned out to be one of the coldest winters on record made our own bouts with a few chilly and frosty mornings hardly worth mentioning. But we mentioned them anyway, of course.

Lynn and Laurel
Tom, Lynn and the Stokes
The pace in January picked up again in part due to getting together with several friends who had briefly escaped the northern winter. Laurel Mills and Lynn Koss from Appleton (Lynn has gone on several of our tropical birding trips) had rented a house on Sanibel Island for a month and had invited us to visit. After a four an a half hour drive, we arrived mid afternoon just in time for a visit to nearby Ding Darling NWR. Hoping to find a Mangrove Cuckoo (an ABA life bird) we drove/walked the auto tour but with no luck. However, we did bump into Don and Lillian Stokes who helped us with a shorebird ID. The problem was, according to Don who glanced at out open Sibley, that we were using the wrong field guide (you have to be a birder to enjoy the humor). Lillian was taken with Tom’s use of the iPhone/scope setup which morphed into a brief “how to” workshop. Alas, no Mangrove Cuckoo but there were plenty of other birds present to distract us. Later that evening Laurel and Lynn treated us to a home cooked meal with the promise of more birding in the morning.

Tom and carol with Jose
Piping Plover
Another ABA life bird bird we were hoping to add was a Saltmarsh Sparrow, one of those secretive, skulking birds restricted to the salt marshes of the Atlantic and Upper Gulf Coasts. Carol had contacted a birding friend of a friend, Jose Padilla, prior to our arrival in the Fort Meyers area. Jose graciously found the time to meet us the next morning and walk us through one of those little known birding hot spots only the locals know how to find. After over an hour of careful and meticulous scouring, we finally found a couple of cooperative sparrows although “cooperative” might be overly kind. Let’s just say we were happy to get brief but very good looks.

boardwalk at Six Mile and White Ibis
On Lynn’s bird bucket list was to see a life bird Piping Plover so Jose drove us to Bunche Beach, one of Lee County’s Park and Recreation properties. To Lynn’s delight, it didn’t long to find a Piping Plover…which, as it turned out, were present in good numbers.
Jose was on a roll and wanted us to visit another local hot spot, Six Mile Cypress Slough. Eleven miles long and over 3,400 acres of wetland, this was much easier to find. The slough is a natural drainage catch basin part of a 33-mile square watershed. Fresh water flows through the slough and empties into the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. We had hoped to glimpse a Short-tailed Hawk (no luck) and had to settle for viewing a diverse population of plants and animals while walking over 1.2 miles of elevated boardwalk. Dang.

Carol, Rick Nirschl, Tom
As luck would have it, another birding friend from Ohio, Rick Nirschl, who we knew from our days birding in South Texas was also staying in the Fort Meyers area. We bumped into Rick on our way out of Six Mile and who then joined us for lunch. Rick was one of two birders who discovered the ABA record sighting of a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron in South Texas. He has also gotten deeply involved studying Odonata and is now making U.S. record discoveries of dragonflies.
Tom, Ray and Sue
A few days after our return to the refuge we drove over to an RV park where Fulltime friends Ray and Sue Morris (and Mickey) were working as volunteers. We’ve managed to catch up with Ray and Sue in South Texas, New York, South Carolina and now Florida. Part of the thrill as fulltime RVers is staying in touch with people we’ve met and reconnecting whenever we can (usually over food and drink).

Tom, Carol, Betty and Dave
scoping at Merritt Island NWR
Betty and Dave, Carol at Lakw Woodruff NWR
In late January dear friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore drove to Florida and stayed in nearby DeLand for several days. By now we were pretty familiar with local birding spots and shepherded them around the area. A revisit to Merritt Island NWR, Blue Springs State Park (wintering Manatees), a drive through a section of Ocala National Forest, a walk through the Lyonia Preserve and Environmental Center (more up close and personal encounters with Florida Scrub-Jays), and of course a few local eateries. Dave and Betty continued on to South Florida before returning to the brutal winter raging in Wisconsin as we started to seriously get psyched and packed for our upcoming trip to Ecuador.


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