Monday, August 11, 2014

Birding trip to Sanibel Island, Florida - May 14-17, 2014

     Although it was difficult to leave the Biggest Week in American Birding, I was also looking forward to my next adventure which would commence the next day. After arriving home in Pennsylvania on May 13th, I took my friends out to a local restaurant where we ate a delicious dinner, reviewed our experiences at the Biggest Week, and started talking about where our next joint birding adventure may take place. Thunderstorms were rolling by as we ate and talked, but by the time we were ready to head out there was a break in the rain. Thus, I took my friends to a local birding spot where I knew we could at least hear some Whip-poor-wills, if not see them.
     This particular birding spot is also well known for the productive vernal pools and masses of amphibians that like to gather here for breeding. Once I turned onto the dirt road that would take us to the Whip-poor-wills , I noticed some amphibians hopping around in my headlights. They were American Toads (Bufo Americanus), and as we drove down the road we saw about 100 of them! Luckily they were big enough to see as I was driving, so progression to our destination was slow as I navigated around the toads, and wound up stopping quite a bit to remove the stubborn ones from the road.
     By the time we finally got close to the Whip-poor-will spot, another thunderstorm was approaching, and cloud-to-cloud lightning was lighting up the sky at regular intervals. Then the Whip-poor-wills started calling. I pulled off the road and shut off the engine to take in the eeriness that the sound of the birds and the lightning was creating. My friends had never heard a Whip-poor-will "sing" before, so this was a terrific experience for them both!
     It was getting pretty late when we got home, so I quickly re-packed my suitcase and attempted to sleep. My flight to Ft. Myers, Florida wasn't until the afternoon the next day, but my friends and I had plans to go birding the next morning, followed by breakfast, plus I had a 3 hour drive to the airport ahead of me.

     This was the first time I was flying on Southwest, but I had heard good things about it, so I wasn't worried. I was impressed by the general positive attitude that all the Southwest crew had, and everything ran smoothly. The flight itself was made a lot less pleasant by the gaggle of loud woman who got drunker as time went on, and were scream-laughing the whole way. If I closed my eyes, all I could think of is a tree full of upset, screaming large parrots. This in turn kept all the small children from sleeping during the flight, and they all ended up screaming in unison.

Leaving Pittsburgh, PA

     Luckily the flight was only 2.5 hours long with little to no turbulence. We landed 10min ahead of schedule, and my friend Libby picked me up and we were off to Sanibel. Libby was working as an intern for the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and I was lucky enough to be able to stay with her on the refuge.
     My first birds of the trip were Glossy and White Ibis in the drainage ditches as we left Ft. Myers, and of course White-winged Doves, and Boat-tailed Grackles aplenty. As we approached Sanibel Island, I saw my first Brown Pelicans of the year, a few Osprey, and an assortment of gulls.

     Since Libby had to work for the first two days I was visiting her, I decided to shadow her and go along on all her wildlife and water quality surveys. The first morning we awoke before dawn to do sea turtle nesting surveys on the beach, followed by water quality testing and collection. After a quick stop to grab some lunch we entered the data from the morning and headed out to try to catch some butterflies for a project that Libby was working on.

Sea turtle nesting surveys on Sanibel Beach at sunrise.

Pretty crab! Pretty dead crab.
     On the second day, we were able to "sleep in" a bit since we were doing bird surveys that started a bit later than the sea turtle surveys. The bird surveys were done with audio playback, where the researcher plays the songs of the birds at regular intervals and records how many birds answer. We were specifically targeting Mangrove Cuckoo, Prairie Warbler, and Black-whiskered Vireo. Of course, two of the birds I really wanted to hear or see while I was on Sanibel were the Black-whiskered Vireo and the Mangrove Cuckoo, but neither of them decided to make a single peep the whole time I was there.

A Green Heron on her nest.

These Mangrove Crabs kept startling me when I was looking for birds in the trees.
     By the time the survey was finished it was lunchtime, so we grabbed some food and headed back to the refuge headquarters. I went and explored the gift shop while Libby took care of some things she had to do, and then she used some comp time to take off early so we could go birding. We grabbed our cameras and headed off to Sanibel Beach for some bird photography. Libby also showed me a Chuck-will's-widow nest with eggs! The parent was nowhere to be seen, but we stayed far back from the nest and used our zoom lenses to take a few photos.

Chuck-will's-widow nest.

White Ibis picking sand fleas out of the surf.

Magnificent Frigatebird cruising overhead.

Ruddy Turnstone
     We decided to have an early dinner that night since we had to go to bed very early. Why? Well because we are slightly crazy and decided to do a Big Day in Lee County, FL. A Big Day is 24 hrs of intense birding. The "day" goes from midnight to midnight, and the goal is to see or hear as many species as possible during that time frame. There are records kept of how many species people have seen or heard during a Big Day in a particular area. Big Days can be constrained by country, state, county, township, park, etc. etc. We had decided to do our Big Day in Lee County, FL since it encompasses not only Sanibel Island, but also some good habitat on the mainland. The record number of bird species seen/heard on a Big Day in Lee County, FL was 86. We intended on breaking that record. Libby and I had been planning this Big Day for a few months but she had done most of the scouting since she was the one working in the area. I had scoured eBird reports to figure out what species were being seen where, and I made sure to review some bird calls/songs that I wasn't used to hearing all the time.
     While waiting for our food to arrive at our table, we laid out all of our route maps, notes, and options so we could create the final route for the Big Day and make any other last minute decisions...such as our team name. We decided on Team Hawksauce. 

Last minute Big Day planning! up....our Big Day!


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