Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is a Florida Year List of 400 Species Possible?


I met Chris Haney in Athens, Georgia, in May, 1984. At the time he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia and I had just transferred there from a wildlife research center in North Dakota. As we stumbled along the banks of the Ocoee River finding my life Swainson’s Warbler, Chris told me that besides getting his PhD his goal in life was to see 300 species in Georgia in one year.

Having grown up in northern Wisconsin I was more than pleased to get 230 species in the Badger state in a year. One year in the early 1970s Daryl Tessen found an incredible 264 species in the state. It was then a milestone. Certainly 300 species in Georgia was never going to be attained. However in 1984 Chris Haney beat my prognostication and came in with a list of 308 for the year.

His success with a robust year list in 1984 and all the traveling he did to achieve that goal lay dormant in my mind until a couple years ago when I retired and moved from Washington DC to Naples and then a year later to Sarasota. Living on the west coast half way up the peninsula I thought that I was ideally located for making strategic chases in the hopes of finding as many birds as possible within the borders in a calendar year. I was only four hours from Miami, seven from Key West, five from Jacksonville, and three from Titusville. If I really wanted to be a masochist, it was an “easy” nine hour drive to Pensacola when needed.

Several factors conspired to make it impossible to attempt a big year in Florida in 2009 so I settled on trying in 2010. Information I gleaned somewhere said that the Big Year record for Florida before 2010 was 374 species. It was a number I thought I would never reach so I set my goal at 325 species. Of course long ago I thought that nobody would ever surpass Lou Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games either. Yet when Gehrig’s record was beaten it wasn’t beaten it was smashed.

Scouring the list serves and other data sources in late December 2009, it was apparent that to get the year off to a positive start I had to be in the western Panhandle in early January and on January 6 I set off for Pensacola. It turned out to be the first of 14 round trips I made to the Panhandle in 2010 but the effort to get there was always fruitful. Before making that first long trek (its 519 miles one-way from Sarasota to Pensacola) I began the year birding Sarasota and Manatee counties. My first bird of the year, seen from my lanai on January 1, was a Wood Stork. It turned to be a positive omen for the year.

Making four chases to the Panhandle coupled with local birding provided a list of 203 species for the year by January 31, 2010. I was only 122 species short of my year goal and I’d only been birding 31 days. Highlights for the month included Greater White-fronted Goose in Duval County, Brant in Nassau County (Fort Clinch), Cackling Goose in Wakulla County, Tundra Swan in St. John’s County, Common Eider in Flagler, Harlequin Duck in Brevard, Masked Duck in Brevard, Red-footed Booby in Dade, Buff-bellied and Calliope Hummingbirds in the Panhandle, Black-throated Gray Warbler in Palm Beach, Western Tanager in Dade and Green-tailed Towhee in Escambia County.

The distribution of Florida's 67 counties is shown here

When he made his attempt at finding 800 species in the ABA area in 1979, Jim Vardamann did considerable research and chose a pattern of being in locale X on a certain date, and locale Y on a different date. Jim ended the year with 799 species. A few years later when Benton Basham actually broke the record (with 814 species I think it was) he chose a different strategy. Benton focused on chasing rarities assuming they would only be in locale X a short while. When successful in seeing the rarity, Benton would then look for the more common local species adding them to his list. The strategy worked for Benton and I decided to employ it for myself in 2010. Other than birding locally I simply watched the list serves for news of a rare bird and chased them.

By February 28, my year list had swollen to 266 species including Vermilion Flycatcher in Okaloosa County.

March brought the first wave of migrant warblers and with them my year list increased by 51 new species to 317. At the end of March I was only eight species short of my year’s goal and my thinking began changing. If 317 species are this “easy” maybe I could see 350 for the year. It would certainly be in the realm of possibility. March highlights included Neotropic Cormorant in Wakulla County, Bar-tailed Godwit at Everglades National Park (of all places!), Surfbird in Levy County, Ash-throated Flycatcher in Alachua County, Loggerhead Kingbird and Thick-billed Vireo n Key West, and Townsend’s Warbler in Dade County.

April saw the beginning of Minor League baseball in Bradenton which caused me to change focus from birds to baseballs. Surprisingly the only Yellow Warbler I saw anywhere in the state during spring migration was singing from the roof over the bleachers at McKechnie Field in Bradenton during a Bradenton Marauders game! By the end of April my year list was at 360 species, surpassing the goal of 350 I had made just a month before and putting me within striking range of the state record of 374 set a few years earlier. Highlights for April included a Golden Eagle in Okeechobee County, Brown-crested Flycatcher in Pinellas County, and a Black-headed Grosbeak in Dade County.

The summer doldrums set in during May and bird activity declined markedly. I added only five new species in May bringing the year list to 365. The highlight of the month was the totally out of place Bahama Mockingbird in Pinellas County. I was able to get to DeSoto Park, tick the bird, and be back in Bradenton in time for the first pitch of a Bradenton Marauders game.

During June I added three species including the incredible Red-legged Thrush, a one-day wonder in Brevard County on June 1. I also added two “common” species I’d missed earlier in the year on yet another trip to the Panhandle. July saw more baseball than birds and in August I added two more including a Willow Flycatcher heard and then seen while bicycling one evening in a Sarasota golf development community. By Labor Day weekend my year list was at 370 species and holding.

September ended with 380 species. An American Golden-Plover in Volusia County tied the previous record of 374 species, and Ruff in Volusia on September 15 was 375. Other highlights for September included Sabine’s Gull in Volusia County, and Cuban Pewee and Western Spindalis in Dade County.

With three months remaining and all of them good month’s for migrants, I began thinking that maybe if everything fell in place it was possible to see 400 species in Florida in a calendar year.

Six species were added in October before I took off for a few days of chasing life birds in the Andes of Colombia. Back home in Florida the highlights were Groove-billed Ani in Franklin County, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in Escambia County, Bell’s Vireo in Franklin County and Yellow-headed Blackbird in Franklin County. My year list was at 386 at the end of October.

The Yellow-legged Gull at Ponce Inlet on November 27 was the only addition to the list in November.

“The” loon (Yellow-billed Loon) in Brevard County on December 21 was second only to the Red-legged Thrush as the most spectacular bird of the year. Other choice additions for December included Ross’s Goose in Brevard County, Lapland Longspur in Okaloosa County and Snow Bunting in Flagler County.

My last tick of the year was the Lapland Longspur in Okaloosa County on December 28. It brought my 2010 Big Year total to 391 species. Foolishly I left the Panhandle and drove back to Sarasota after seeing the Longspur that morning. On my return home in the evening I received an email informing me that an Allen’s Hummingbird was seen that day not very far from where I had been looking at the Longspur that morning. Faced with another 475 mile one way drive for a year bird I contemplated the run but my enthusiasm was telling me it had had enough for one year. I decided to stay home. If something good was to show up it had to be somewhere close to home. I was done with long distance chasing for the year.

I ended 2010 with a year list of 391 species in Florida far surpassing my early goal of 325 species and surpassing the state record by 17 species.

Seeing that many birds required 14 round trips to the Panhandle, four trips to Key West, seven to Miami and the Everglades, eleven trips to Brevard County, ten to Volusia County, and five to Duval and Nassau Counties. I put more than 28,000 miles on my car or more regularly on rental cars. I visited each of Florida’s 67 counties a minimum of five times during the year, slept in my car or in a hotel 69 nights and spent a little over $12,000 on gas, hotels, food and rental cars. During the year I added 36 species to my Florida list and added more county birds to more county lists than I care to enumerate. I also started county lists in places like Union and Washington and Liberty counties and other smaller, less birded locales. However I still came up short of the magic 400 species for a year.

Is it possible to see 400 or more species in Florida in a year? My experience this year told me it most certainly is. Because of several conflicting factors, I was not able to get on any pelagic trips this year out of the Ponce Inlet, Miami, or the Keys. And despite being in Key West four times I was never able to make a trip to the Dry Tortugas. Had I been able to get on at least one of those trips I think 400 would have been obtainable.

Based on what was posted on various bird list serves during the year, I missed seeing 18 species in Florida that were seen by someone somewhere in the state in 2010. Those included: Cinnamon Teal, Black-capped Petrel, Greater Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Audubon’s Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, Masked Booby, Red Phalarope, Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, Arctic Tern, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Western Meadowlark

My experience in 2010 shows that if a lot of factors fall into place 400 species is certainly attainable and can be surpassed. Reliance on the five (or more?) bird list serves that blanket Florida is essential. All but one of the rarities I observed during the year, along with many of the highlighted species mentioned above, were found, documented and/or photographed by others and reported on the list serves. The one exception was a juvenal Golden Eagle sitting on a fence post along the road to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. In most cases I was able to find the rarities the day after the initial sighting was posted by someone else. When the Red-legged Thrush showed up in June, I received an email about it at 2:00 in the afternoon and by 5:30 that afternoon I was on the east coast looking at the bird. It was not seen again after that one day. The same held for the Surfbird near Cedar Key in March. Less than eighteen hours after its appearance on the list serve, I was paddling a kayak out to the island where it was still present.

Certainly 400 species and more can be found in Florida in a calendar year, however it will not be done by me. A Big Year chase like this is a once-in-a-lifetime project, and I’m too tired to think of trying again. I’ll just focus my attention on county listing and attend a lot more baseball games that I did in 2010.

My 2010 Florida Big Year list is reproduced below.

DUCKS, GEESE, AND WATERFOWL
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Goose
Ross’s Goose
Brant
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Muscovy Duck
Wood Duck
Gadwall
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Mallard
Mottled Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Canvasback
Redhead
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Masked Duck
Ruddy Duck

NEW WORLD QUAIL
Northern Bobwhite

PHEASANTS, GROUSE, AND ALLIES
Wild Turkey

LOONS
Red-throated Loon
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Yellow-billed Loon

GREBES
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe

SHEARWATERS AND PETRELS
Cory’s Shearwater

STORM-PETRELS
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel

BOOBIES AND GANNETS
Brown Booby
Red-footed Booby
Northern Gannet

PELICANS
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican

CORMORANTS AND SHAGS
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant

ANHINGAS
Anhinga

FRIGATEBIRDS
Magnificent Frigatebird

HERONS, EGRETS, AND BITTERNS
American Bittern
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

IBISES AND SPOONBILLS
White Ibis
Glossy Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill

STORKS
Wood Stork

NEW WORLD VULTURES
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture

OSPREY
Osprey

HAWKS, EAGLES, AND KITES
Swallow-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kite
Snail Kite
Mississippi Kite
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle

FALCONS AND CARACARAS
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Merlin
Peregrine Falcon

RAILS, GALLINULES, AND COOTS
Black Rail
Clapper Rail
King Rail
Virginia Rail
Sora
Purple Gallinule
Common Moorhen
American Coot

LIMPKIN
Limpkin

CRANES
Sandhill Crane

PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
Black-bellied Plover
American Golden-Plover
Snowy Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Piping Plover
Killdeer

OYSTERCATCHERS
American Oystercatcher

STILTS AND AVOCETS
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet

SANDPIPERS AND ALLIES
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Willet
Lesser Yellowlegs
Upland Sandpiper
Whimbrel
Long-billed Curlew
Hudsonian Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Marbled Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Surfbird
Red Knot
Sanderling
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Baird’s Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
Dunlin
Stilt Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Ruff
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Wilson’s Snipe
American Woodcock
Wilson’s Phalarope
Red-necked Phalarope

GULLS, TERNS, AND SKIMMERS
Sabine’s Gull
Bonaparte’s Gull
Laughing Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Thayer’s Gull
Iceland Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Least Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Caspian Tern
Black Tern
Roseate Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Black Skimmer

SKUAS AND JAEGERS
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger

PIGEONS AND DOVES
Rock Pigeon
White-crowned Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Ground-Dove

PARROTS
Budgerigar
Nanday Parakeet
Monk Parakeet
White-winged Parakeet

CUCKOOS
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Mangrove Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani

BARN-OWLS
Barn Owl

OWLS
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Burrowing Owl
Barred Owl
Short-eared Owl

NIGHTJARS AND ALLIES
Lesser Nighthawk
Common Nighthawk
Antillean Nighthawk
Chuck-will’s-widow
Eastern Whip-poor-will

SWIFTS
Chimney Swift

HUMMINGBIRDS
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird

KINGFISHERS
Belted Kingfisher

WOODPECKERS
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker

TYRANT FLYCATCHERS
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Cuban Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Brown-crested Flycatcher
La Sagra’s Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Gray Kingbird
Loggerhead Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

SHRIKES
Loggerhead Shrike

VIREOS
White-eyed Vireo
Thick-billed Vireo
Bell’s Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Black-whiskered Vireo

CROWS, JAYS, AND MAGPIES
Blue Jay
Florida Scrub-Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow

LARKS
Horned Lark

SWALLOWS
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow

CHICKADEES AND TITS
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse

NUTHATCHES
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch

CREEPERS
Brown Creeper

WRENS
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren

GNATCATCHERS
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

BULBULS
Red-whiskered Bulbul

KINGLETS
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

THRUSHES AND ALLIES
Eastern Bluebird
Veery
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Red-legged Thrush

MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Bahama Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher

STARLINGS
Common Myna
European Starling

WAGTAILS AND PIPITS
American Pipit

WAXWINGS
Cedar Waxwing

NEW WORLD WARBLERS
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
Swainson’s Warbler
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Kentucky Warbler
Connecticut Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Canada Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat

TANAGERS AND ALLIES
Western Spindalis

BUNTINGS, SPARROWS AND ALLIES
Green-tailed Towhee
Eastern Towhee
Bachman’s Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Henslow’s Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Saltmarsh Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting

CARDINALS AND ALLIES
Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
Western Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Painted Bunting
Dickcissel

TROUPIALS AND ALLIES
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Shiny Cowbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Bullock’s Oriole
Spot-breasted Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

SISKINS, CROSSBILLS,AND ALLIES
Purple Finch
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

OLD WORLD SPARROWS
House Sparrow

--------- STATISTICS ---------
Species seen - 391
Families w/seen species – 63

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