Friday, July 4, 2014

June Challenge

The June Challenge Trophy!

Another June Challenge has come and gone, and as usual, I did not win. This comes as no big surprise or disappointment to me because I am not a particularly knowledgable birder, and that's ok. I'm interested and enthusiastic about birding, but I'm also interested in flowers, butterflies and other animals. I don't know the intricacies of Empidonax Flycatchers, Sparrows and Warblers, but I do recognize the usual, obvious birds. My list is growing each year, so I am learning and getting better. A friend reassured me by quoting renowned birder Kenn Kaufman, who said “Birding is something we do for enjoyment; so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder.” I do enjoy it a lot, so I must be a great birder! But by that measure, I'm a great botanist, lepidopterist and herpetologist. But seriously, there are people out there who know so much more than I do and spend so much more time birding that I will always be in the middle to back of the pack, and I don't mind a bit because the June Challenge gives me so much more than the challenge. 

Green Heron All Stretched Out
A little background on the June Challenge: this is a friendly competition created by a member of our local Audubon chapter to keep birders busy and engaged in the hot, quiet summer when the migrants have passed through and there is little going on. The challenge is to see as many species of free-flying birds as possible in the month of June. The birds must be seen within the boundaries of our county and they must actually be seen to be counted. Hearing is not enough! (Damned Bobwhites.) On June 1st some of our most experienced birders usually lead a birding field trip that helps get our lists off to a good start. And then for the rest of the month people text, email, and call about daily excursions to look for rare and difficult to find birds. It takes a lot of stamina to win, but everyone is eager to share a special sighting. This is a very congenial group. For example, I usually have White Winged Doves at my bird feeders, and a Cooper's Hawk often hangs around the pine trees in the yard. I told a few friends and saw more than one car slow drive by slowly, checking for other birds on the list. I think it's all a lot of fun. And it's been so popular that people outside of our county have started their own June Challenge!
Great Blue Heron
In the end, the 2 winners (both are my friends, and one was my photo buddy, Maralee!) each counted the phenomenal number of 116 birds of the total 128 birds reported. I saw 77, which I don't think was too bad considering that I wasn't able to attend the kickoff event and took a trip out of town for a week. I missed some of the easier birds, but I saw some special ones, too. There were some rare off-season American Robins nesting just up the street from me, but I never saw them. And several people spent an astonishing amount of time camped out hoping to see a Broad Winged Hawk. I didn't see it either. But I did see 3 Burrowing Owls (first time! Yay!) and finally got a Bobwhite to show itself. I see Bobwhites all the time, but for some perverse reason, never in the month of June. 
It's too bad that you can't count feathers because I saw several from birds I didn't get on my list
But for me, the June Challenge is about so much more than seeing and counting birds. It pushes me to get outside and explore as often as I can. It helps me get out of the rut of visiting the same old places, and it helps me meet new friends who are also out and about and of like mind. In the course of my month of bird searches, I woke up before dawn, hiked in the blazing mid-day sun, and hunted for owls at dusk. I walked by Lakes, Ponds and Creeks, through Sandhills, Flatwoods, Wet Prairie, a Cow Pasture and Cypress Swamp. I staked out parking lots, bird feeders and a medical park in the rain. Each day out was an adventure and I felt more alive with every excursion. 
Early Morning in the Cow Pasture, in Pursuit of the Burrowing Owls

Pine Flatwoods

Cypress Swamp at the End of a Trail

Red Tailed Hawk in the Rain at a Medical Park
Because I was out so often, in addition to my 77 birds, I was able to see lots of flowers, insects, mammals and herps. I saw Sandhill Crane colts (that's what  their chicks are called), baby Grackles, Gallinules and a Fish Crow chick. 
Sandhill Crane and Colt

Boat-Tailed Grackle Chick

Common Gallinule Chicks

I crossed paths with Rabbits, Raccoons, Wild Horses and their colts (the 4 legged kind), Feral Hogs, White Tailed Deer, a Bobcat (!) and a Fox Squirrel! 
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit


Wild Horses and their Colts

White Tailed Deer

Flying Fox Squirrel
I saw a Corn Snake, Water Moccasins, Lizards, Alligators, Soft Shell Turtles and numerous Toads and Frogs, including a Gopher Frog--another first for me! 
The Corn Snake Stuck Around Even After Being Stepped On!

Alligator Tracks and Skid Marks

Florida Soft-Shelled Turtle, Perhaps Laying Eggs

Little Southern Toad

Gopher Frog and its Many Admirers!
I saw huge Regal Darner Dragonflies and tiny Damselflies, Spiders and Grasshoppers. 
Regal Darner

Jumping Spider
Walking along those trails, we saw numerous butterflies: Buckeyes, Monarchs, Sulphurs, Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, Zebra Longwings and a Red Spotted Purple sunning in the parking lot. 
Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly
I found a new wildflower, the Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora), found Tarflowers blooming in the flatwoods, and was thrilled to see a stunningly beautiful display of Pickerelweed on Paynes Prairie. No one around here has seen the Prairie covered like this for years. It's really been a fabulous month.
Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

Tarflower (Bejaria racemosa)

Pickerelweed (Pontedaria cordifolia) As Far as the Eye Can See
Now that the challenge is over, I am looking for new adventures to get me out in the field. Sometimes it's hard to motivate myself. I get tired after a work week and my tendency is to just blob out at home in my free time. But I feel so much better when I get out and battle the chiggers and heat. All it takes is a seeing a raft of frog eggs floating in an ephemeral pond on a trail, or a perfect Hooded Pitcher Plant and I forget all about itching and sweating. At those times I am exhilarated and feel completely alive. 
Egg Shell Under the Pines
At the June Challenge celebration on July 1st, I heard someone suggest that we do a July Challenge, too! As fun as it sounds, I don't know if most of us can keep up the grueling pace for 2 months. Especially in the heat and humidity of Florida in July. But I'll be looking for opportunities wherever I can. Butterflies and Hummingbirds like this hot weather, and as I walk the trails, I can already see signs of fall wildflowers to come. It's going to be a good fall. And winter. And spring. It's always good!
Happy Trails in My Future