Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Birding Florida's Pine Flatwoods

One of the bird species of Florida that is most enjoyable to see and especially hear is Bachmans Sparrow. This denizen of pine flatwoods has, without doubt, one of the most beautiful voices of any North American songbird.

Non-descript as they are, simply nothing beats a Bachmans Sparrow when it comes to voice. You can hear its voice at this link.

I left Sarasota at 0 dark 30 this morning and headed east on Fruitvilile Road to the north side of Myakka River State Park where I took Clay Gully Road east for about 8 miles. This road traverses a variety of habitats including forested wetlands
that should have Cottonmouths swimming around were it not so damned cold outside! However at this bridge crossing I found a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks very actively displaying as they prepared to establish a territory for the nesting season.

Not far east of this forested wetland the habitats opened up into an expanse of Florida prairie that was teeming with sparrows. Looking at this prairie it dawned on me that were it not for the Cattle Egrets all over the place, this patch of ground could have very easily been a wet meadow along the incomparable Platte River in Nebraska.

I spent probably 30 minutes kicking around in this sort of habitat this morning and chased up a nice bunch of sparrows including Grasshopper Sparrow, a migrant from more northerly climes that hangs out in the abundance of grasslands here each winter.

Birds on this side of the state are not the highly endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow that is restricted to several counties in central Florida.

Included among the sparrow fauna today was a Vesper Sparrow that was a complete surprise for me because of how far south it was. Unfortunately it was not in Sarasota County so I couldn't add it to that list but it fits nicely on my Manatee County list as well.

After traveling through a lot of wild Florida I arrived at Sugar Bowl Road and took it south toward State Route 72. The road traverses some excellent forested habitat including one place where I found Florida Scrub-Jay in the pine/scrub interface.

I searched the area in Sarasota County along Sugar Bowl / Sidell Road but there is no habitat there whatsoever that even resembles Bachmans Sparrow habitat. Instead its more like the endless agricultural habitats of the Red River of North Dakota. However there is an abundance of Bachmans Sparrow habitat along this road in Manatee County and I was able to get one bird to sing for me.

By noon I was starting to feel famished so I began my return to Sarasota along much the same route I followed out in the morning. At one place along the road I found a feeding flock of 18 or 19 Pine Warblers hopping around in the grasslands.

On my return toward Sarasota I stopped at an expanse of wetland along the Myakka River that sits on the border with between Sarasota and Manatee Counties.

Here among a host of herons and egrets I found a pair of Crested Caracaras displaying. I wonder if they are going to stick around to nest here or if they will move backward toward the center of the state where most Caracaras nest?

On returning to Sarasota I stopped by a developed area along North Cattlemens Road near the Sam's Club to look for an American Bittern that had been seen here in recent weeks. Not finding it I was most pleased to drive up to and damned near touch a pair of Florida Sandhill Cranes handing out in the parking lot of this development.

After all those years working with Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska I had come to believe that this species was one of the most wary and elusive of all North American birds. You can't come within 100 meters of a Sandhill Crane in Nebraska without it taking flight. Yet here in Florida they are quite accustomed to humans. It might be part of the philosophy espoused by my old office mate Hal Kantrud at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown North Dakota who said in the summer of 1978 that the future of bird's in the world was "adapt or die". Unfortunately Florida Sandhills have had to learn how to adapt.

It was most enjoyable being out in the wild of Sarasota and Manatee Counties today enjoying the birds and the habitats. The most sobering part of the experience was realizing that most of the maps of potential growth in Florida show that by 2030 - just 20 years from today - the only parts of the state that will not be developed are areas that are now in public ownership whether its a National Wildlife Refuge, a state park or county sensitive lands. That's it.

I don't have to worry because 20 years from today (and probably a lot less) I will be dead so it wont matter to me. But I can't help but wonder how angry our children will be 20 years from now when they drive down Clay Gully Road to Sugar Bowl Road and instead of seeing wild Florida they see nothing but houses and they wonder why we didn't do a damned thing to stop it when we had a chance.