Monday, May 10, 2010

Birding Glades County Florida

This past Saturday, May 8, 2010, was the day of the North American Migration Count, a survey designed to provide a snapshot of the advance of bird migration across the North American continent. The brain child of a birder from Annapolis, Maryland (near by) the NAMC design is centered on the boundaries of each of the counties or parishes in the lower 48 states. In the boundaries intrepid groups of ornithologists and birders try to find as many birds of as many species as possible in a 24 hour period. Its akin to the better known Christmas Bird Count that has been run by the National Audubon Society for 110 years (and its because its run by the National Audubon Society that I refuse to participate in Christmas Bird Counts). Christmas Bird Counts are restricted to 15-mile diameter circles whereas the NAMC is based on county boundaries.

For the 2010 NAMC I was asked to count birds in the eastern half of Glades County Florida (shown in red on the map below).

I started the count at 5:55 a.m. while standing on the verge of County Highway 720 about 1/2 mile north of the Glades/Hendry County line. The habitat here is extensive sugar cane. Endless sugar cane in fact. Still I was surprised to find an abundance and diversity of birds in the cane, perhaps because the cane was recently sprouted. Maybe going back in a couple months when the cane is as tall as a Nebraska corn field in August there won't be any birds to be found?

Still at 5 minutes to six yesterday morning there were Common Nighthawks and Common Yellowthroats in abundance every time I stopped the car and got out to listen.

As the sun rose and I could see instead of just hear, this is the scene that unfolded in front of me.

Seemingly endless sugar cane. Despite this being called Glades County, there are no Everglades left in Glades County. The area around the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee is endless sugar cane. Its because of reduced flows coming from the Lake and the endless sea of sugar cane that the real Everglades are in such ecological trouble now. We are now spending billions and billions of dollars to restore the Everglades and slow down the ecological damage that water development and sugar cane have wrought on the Everglades.

Despite the bleak environment I was able to find some interesting birds in the sea of cane. Most interesting to me was seven or eight migrant Dickcissels singing from the edge of the cane at several places where I stopped.
Dickcissel spend the winter on the llanos of Venezuela. Being in the endless sea of grasses in a sugar cane field must have made them think they were back in Venezuela. Along with the Dickcissels were several flocks of migrating Bobolink, themselves recently returned from the Pampas grasslands of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

Other nice surprises in the endless sea of sugar cane was a pair of River Otters along the side of the road and a Bobcat, only the sixth alive one I've ever seen!

I left the sugar cane fields after one hour and fifteen minutes with a surprising list of 38 species seen or heard. Curious among them was several Sedge Wrens that I heard singing in almost the same places as the Dickcissels.

I next stopped in Moore Haven at the Moore Haven Lock and Damn (all human-made blockages of naturally flowing rivers or streams are spelled DAMN not dam as the popular literature would have you believe).

The Moore Haven Lock and Damn is an important structure in the decline and destruction of the Everglades. From it flows the Caloosahatchee River, part of the early plan to drain the Everglades one ditch at a time. I made a point of walking out on to the edge of the damn and urinating on it - its the only logical response I can think of for something that destroys the way nature is supposed to work.

From the area behind the damn I picked up several new species for the day including the first Limpkins of the count as several Great Crested Flycatchers. The number of migrants on this migration count was decidedly limited.

Leaving Moore Haven with 44 species for the day I drove up US 27 to Palmdale and the area around Fisheating Creek. Thirty years ago Fisheating Creek was THE place to find Short-tailed Hawk in the United States. However that has now changed and they are a bit more widespread than back then. As many times as I have been along Fisheating Creek looking for Short-tailed Hawk I have still not seen one. Saturday was no different.

It was here around Palmdale that I turned up a few actual migrants including Blue Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, and Gray-cheeked Thrush. I got the latter by first hearing its distinctive call note that you can hear at the end of this recording.

Returning from Palmdale to Moore Haven I found the first of two road-killed Alligators along Highway 27. I had never seen a road-killed gator before Saturday and then I found two on the same stretch of road. Something tells me there are a lot of gators in that part of Florida.

Between Palmdale and Moore Haven and away from the endless sugar cane I found some interesting and refreshing patches of remnant south Florida prairie.

The prairie was filled with Eastern Meadowlarks singing their distinctive song from all possible locations and also the occasional pair of Sandhill Cranes with their one colt of the year. For only the second time in my life I saw two adult Sandhill Cranes with two colts - something that happens only about 1 percent of the time. Very cool. I also found the only Crested Caracara of the day in this kind of habitat.

Returning to Moore Haven about noon I ate an alleged chicken sandwich at Burger King and moved on north and east along State Highway 78 to Lockport along the west shore of Lake Okeechobee. At 700 square miles Okeechobee is the second largest lake inside the border of the United States.

There is an abundance of wetlands along and adjacent to the west shore of the humongous dike (the Herbert Hoover dike - this was a logical name. The dike is is destructive so its named after a Republican) that rings the lake shore. In the wetlands I found all the standard herons and egrets and ibis you would expect to find in Florida.

At Lockport I took County Highway 721 north through the Brighton Indian Reservation.

At about the boundary of the Reservation and the beginning of Lykes Brothers extensive ranch I found a small wetland on the east side of the road that was teeming with bird life. The most obvious and conspicuous bird here was Black-necked Stilt. There were at least six pairs of Stilt's here each squabbling and carrying on with the other pairs and just generally making a lot of noise. It had been several years since I last heard a conglomeration of Black-necked Stilt's so this afternoon's encounter was most enjoyable.

Also present with the Stilt's on this wetland was several White-rumped Sandpipers, probably the most long distance migrant of the day.

White-rumped Sandpipers nest in the High Arctic of Canada and near Barrow Alaska and winter in Tierra del Fuego in southernmost South America. I remember well in January 2003 finding all sorts of White-rumped Sandpipers foraging on a saline wetland not far from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southermost city in the world and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

The only wildlife species that was truly present in abundance today was the Love Bug (Plecia nearctica) an aggravating and super abundant member of the March Fly family.

There were gazillions of them all over the place in and out of the sugar cane fields. I killed several thousand of them simply driving down the road. Every car or truck I saw with Glades or Hendry County license plates were also covered from head to toe with dead Love Bugs.

The Bradenton Marauders were playing the Charlotte Stone Crabs at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night so I had to leave Glades County about 4:00 or so to get back in time for the game. By mid-afternoon the temperature was about 88 degrees F and it was sultry as hell so few birds were moving. It was a wise time to get going out of there.

My species total for the day (shown below) was 83 species which I considered to be very good given the geographic location of Glades County and the near total lack of extensive forest to attract migrant songbirds. Still it was a nice way to spend a day in the field getting to feel like I was a biologist again.

Count Summary

Species Total = 83
Individuals = 3658

Route Followed: ½ mile north of Glades/Hendry County line on County Highway 720 to US 27 s. of Moore Haven. Area around Moore Haven lock and damn. North on 27 to Jct with SR 78. NO counting along highway until Palmdale. Area around Palmdale and Fisheating Creek. NO counting along highway back to SR 78. North on 78 to Lockport. North on County Road 721 through Indian reservation to the Highlands County line.

Species Tally * indicates a species I’d consider actually still migrating
Numbers are the number of individuals of each species counted.

Pied-billed Grebe – 1
Double-crested Cormorant – 11
Anhinga – 19
Least Bittern – 1
Great Blue Heron – 5
Great Egret – 81
Snowy Egret – 53
Little Blue Heron – 34
Tricolored Heron – 68
Cattle Egret – 319
Green Heron – 41
Black-crowned Night-Heron – 2
White Ibis – 205
Glossy Ibis – 109
Roseate Spoonbill – 12
Wood Stork – 13
Mottled Duck – 31
Black Vulture – 99
Turkey Vulture – 84
Osprey – 7
Swallow-tailed Kite – 1
Bald Eagle – 1
Red-shouldered Hawk – 9
Crested Caracara – 2
Northern Bobwhite – 16
King Rail – 1
Purple Gallinule – 3
Common Moorhen – 11
Limpkin – 11
Sandhill Crane – 15
Killdeer – 10
Black-necked Stilt – 23
* Lesser Yellowlegs – 1
* Least Sandpiper – 4
* White-rumped Sandpiper – 3
Laughing Gull – 5
* Forster’s Tern – 2
Rock Pigeon 13
Eurasian Collared- Dove – 18
White-winged Dove – 5
Mourning Dove – 186
*Yellow-billed Cuckoo – 1
Common Nighthawk – 83
*Chimney Swift – 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 10
Downy Woodpecker – 2
Pileated Woodpecker – 1
Great Crested Flycatcher – 12
* Eastern Kingbird – 8
Purple Martin – 17
Northern Rough-winged Swallow – 6
* Bank Swallow – 1
* Barn Swallow - 1
Blue Jay – 16
American Crow – 9
Fish Crow – 21
Crow sp. – 2
Tufted Titmouse – 4
Carolina Wren – 12
* Sedge Wren 8
* Gray-cheeked Thrush - 1
Northern Mockingbird – 108
Brown Thrasher – 2
Loggerhead Shrike – 9
White-eyed Vireo – 29
* Red-eyed Vireo – 3
Northern Parula – 7
* Yellow Warbler – 2
* American Redstart – 2
* Ovenbird – 1
Common Yellowthroat – 310
Northern Cardinal – 25
* Blue Grosbeak – 2
* Indigo Bunting – 3
* Dickcissel – 8
Eastern Towhee – 8
* Bobolink – 89
Red-winged Blackbird – 768
Eastern Meadowlark – 79
Boat-tailed Grackle – 450
Common Grackle – 22
Brown-headed Cowbird – 4
* Baltimore Oriole – 3