Wednesday, June 3, 2015

30 Days in June: Day 1

2014 Winners, My Friends Danny and Maralee, With the Trophy That They Shared
Every June, the Alachua County Audubon chapter has a fun contest called the "June Challenge". I've talked about it in previous June blogs, but in a nutshell, the idea is to try to see as many birds as as possible in Alachua County, in the month of June. The winner gets to keep the cool trophy for a year and is worshipped by fellow birders as a birding god. Just kidding. But I've participated for several years now and can say that it is a lot of fun. So I was really happy to realize that our moving plans would allow me one more June Challenge before we left for Georgia. I had also been thinking that I wanted to be sure to spend as much time as I could in my favorite Florida nature spots before we moved away, so I came up with the brilliant idea to combine the June Challenge and my Au Revoir Tour of my favorite places and share the experience here. 30 days in June to see as many birds as I can. 30 days to see about 30 parks and preserves, some more than once. Perfect! So here goes!

The June Challenge Kickoff started on June 1st, bright and early, led as always by local birder extraordinaire, Rex Rowan. The Kickoff is a great way to commune with fellow birders and to take advantage of the combined eyes, ears and knowledge of a big group to get your list going. At the end of the morning it is usually possible to have 50-60 birds checked off the list. Without the Kickoff, my list is considerably shorter at the end of the month. Rex plans the morning to hit 4-5 locations with certain target species and it usually very successful.
Sunrise in the Flatwoods
We met at 6:15am in the Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve to look for Common Nighthawks, Bachman's Sparrows, and possibly an owl. The first Nighthawk showed up as we were gathering in the parking lot and we saw 2 more later on. We were treated to a mating display as a male circled and dived to show off for the females. We saw Eastern Towhees and Pine Warblers, and we were led to the Bachman's Sparrow a while later after we heard the "hear kitty, kitty" call. We also saw Red Bellied and Red Headed Woodpeckers. After we had found our targets we headed to the next stop. The sun was rising and we had a lot of ground to cover!


Here, Kitty Kitty...

Next stop was the boat ramp at Owens-Illinois Park in Windsor, on the east side of Newnan's Lake to look for Eagles and Limpkins. We walked down to the lakeshore and were mobbed by midges until we stood in the sun. They had completely covered the grass and plants in the shady edges. It was pretty impressive how many insects were out there, but they werent biting, and they probably provide lots of good food for insectivores. At Windsor we saw a Limpkin eating snails, a Laughing Gull, a fishing Osprey, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, an Anhinga, Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, Cormorants, a Great Egret, a Green Heron and a Great Blue Heron as well as a cool Black Mudsnake. I've never seen one of these before, but I understand now that they are very common. I missed the Bald Eagle because I was looking at the snake. We also saw a Least Bittern climbing up some cattails. Least Bitterns have been very plentiful this year and I almost laugh when I see yet another. They are delightful little birds, though. On the way back to our cars people heard a Prairie Warbler, which would have been a great bird for the list, but no one was able to see it. We did see a Red Eyed Vireo, though.

Millions of Midges

Red Belly of a Black Mudsnake

Successful Osprey over Newnan's Lake

Can You Find the Least Bittern?
After Windsor we visited Earl Powers Park on the south side of the lake. There we found dozens of Turkey Vultures, had a flyover by a Cooper's Hawk and a Red Shouldered Hawk, heard and saw a Fish Crow, and got a nice look at several Northern Parulas and a Yellow Throated Warbler. There was another Bald Eagle sighting there, but I couldn't positively ID the eagle so decided not to count it today. I know I can find another.

Next stop, Palm Point Park, on the west side of the lake, to try to find a Prothonotary Warbler. I was so impressed to learn that both Rex and Mike Manetz, another expert birder in our group, could each make a pretty convincing Screech Owl call! No luck with the Prothonotaries, but we did find a Tri-Colored Heron, another Limpkin, a Carolina Wren, White Eyed Vireo and a Pileated Woodpecker. It was getting pretty hot, but we trudged on to the last stop, La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

It was about 10:30 and was getting hotter and hotter. It seemed like a bad sign that the Iron Ranger (self-pay station) at the park entrance was covered with a sign saying no fee was necessary because the trail was closed. But we decided to try anyway. When we got inside the park, we met one of the workers doing the road construction and he told us to stay on the boardwalk rather than on the road closer to the bushes where we wanted to go. So we looked from the boardwalk as the bulldozers chased away birds at the edge of the road. It was not ideal. Still, we saw an Orchard Oriole, an Indigo Bunting and a family of Common Gallinules.

At the end of the boardwalk, we realized that the construction would not impede our access to the rest of the trail, so the group marched on. We hoped to find a King Rail or Purple Gallinule along the old Sweetwater Branch, but the vegetation was too high to continue. We did see a Mississippi Kite as well as White Ibises and Cattle Egrets flying overhead and a Barn Swallow resting on a branch.
Mississippi Kite

Barn Swallow
At this point I was so hot and tired that I had to quit, so I went home even as the rest of the group continued to the observation platform where they were treated to whole list of marvelous birds, including a Red Necked Phalarope, a species that had not been seen in the county for 15 years. When I heard what I had missed I was terribly envious, but I was also too pooped to go on.

After I had cooled off and showered at home, I took a peek around my yard and added Mourning Doves, Brown Thrasher, Mockingbird, Cardinal, Titmouse,  Carolina Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Brown Headed Cowbird, Bluejay and House Finch. And later on an evening walk, I added Chimney Swifts, and drove past the Beef Unit on the UF Campus to add Rock Pigeons to my list.

At the end of the day I was exhausted, had visited 5 parks, and had 51 birds on my list. Not a bad start. 29 days to go!

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