Friday, January 28, 2011

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park with the Unique Birders from OTOW

Bill and I joined the OTOW Unique Birders group for a wonderful field trip to hike the LaChua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park south of Gainesville.

Our first stop was the icy observation platform just off Route 441 in Micanopy (mic-can-no-pee). Looking out over the prairie, we saw dozens of Sandhill Cranes both on the ground and overhead. A coyote ran in the distance.

Normally, I would have overlooked this sparrow - but we were fortunate to have a birding expert in the group who identified it as a Swamp Sparrow - our first life bird of the day.

After a short drive we arrived at the parking area and the beginning of the LaChua Trail - a 3-mile loop into the prairie. As we headed through the trees at the entrance, it looked like we were in an apple orchard - but the bright red apples were Northern Cardinals.

I saw no birds when I passed this marshy area, but again, our eagle-eyed teacher pointed out an American Bittern in the reeds.

I was thrilled to see it step out in the open so I was able to get quite a few decent pictures.

The stripes on its neck are his camouflage as he "hides" in the reeds by standing still with his head pointed to the sky.

Overhead, we saw more Sandhill Cranes. While I was distracted photographing some of the shore birds, Bill said he saw a couple of Whooping Cranes fly over. I said, yea, right, sure you did.

The Sandhill Cranes landed in another marshy area beyond the viewing area. We could see lots and lots of cranes - including...

Whooping Cranes!!

These beautiful birds stand almost a foot taller than their Sandhill Crane cousins.

Both of the birds were banded identifying them as either part of the resident population or migrants. As of Sept. 2010, there were 25 non-migratory and 119 migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida during the winter. What a trill to see two of the just over 400 birds currently in the wild.

There were lots of other eye treats as we walked the trail. The sun was shinning and the day warmed nicely. This Eastern Phoebe was also enjoying the sun.

I saw a bird hovering in the air and assumed it was a Belted Kingfisher as I've seen them hover over water before diving straight down to catch a fish - but Norm, our teacher, correctly identified it as an American Kestrel.

The area we were hiking has an interesting history. Before 1892, the area was covered with water. The huge Alachua Lake was was a tourist attraction and supported a thriving steamboat business. One day the entire lake just disappeared - into a giant sink hole. Today, water still flows into the hole and the lake has been replaced with over 16,000 acres of freshwater marsh and wet prairie. There are over 270 species of birds (including this cute Cattle Egret) bison, cracker horses and cattle, alligators and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes. The preserve includes the Prairie and some of the surrounding uplands for a total of nearly 22,000 acres.

Yes, I said bison! These young Plains Bison walked right in front of us - down the trail.

and wild horses! Horses were introduced to Florida in the mid-1500's to heard cattle.

So nice to see the shore birds! Along with this White Ibis, we saw several Glossy Ibis, the ever-present Coots, Anhinga, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Common Moorhen, Tricolored Heron and Pied-billed Grebe. Someone said they saw a Wood Duck - but I missed it.

This Great Blue Heron was entertaining as he tried to figure out just how he was going to eat the huge fish he caught.

There were lots of hawks. This apparently is a young Red-Shouldered Hawk.

More Cattle Egret. I usually can't get close enough - or they refuse to stand still - for decent images.

This Tricolored Heron was intent on his mission to catch a fish (or two, or three) for breakfast.

I'm not sure what kind of turtle this is. He wasn't very big - maybe 6 inches across.

This is the kind of wet swampy area where I hoped to see a Purple Gallinule, but found Ibis and Moorhens instead.

...and Alligators! There were hundreds of American Alligators lining the banks - more and more as the day warmed.

Back at the entrance to the trail, several small birds played in the trees including this Black-and-white Warbler.

I also saw this bird, which I thought was a Northern Parula - or maybe a Magnolia Warbler or Blue-headed Vireo. I'm waiting for verification from our resident expert, Norm. (Norm has confirmed that my mystery bird is a Blue-headed Vireo.)

This car was in front of us as we caravaned to the next stop.

Next stop was the University of Florida's beef farm where a large flock of Sandhill Cranes joined the cattle. It looks like they are captive - but they are not.

We had already seen hundreds of Sandhill Cranes back at Paynes Prairie. The reason for our visit was the small white goose in with the much larger cranes - a Ross' Goose and another life bird.

My pictures aren't very good - and those of you that are regular readers know I hate having ugly man-made structures like this barbed-wire fence in my pictures - but that's what I had to work with and for a bird that is rarely seen in this neck of the woods, I'll make an exception!

After a wonderful morning of birding - and a total of 51 different species, we gathered at the 43rd Street Deli for lunch and friendship. Bill and I really enjoyed the company of this "Unique" group of bird enthusiasts and will definitely join them on more field trips in the future.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Whooping Crane Flyover

What an amazing morning!! I've been following Operation Migration ( where a dedicated group is re-introducing young and very endangered Whooping Cranes into the wild and teaching them to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. The young chicks follow their surrogate parent, a costumed pilot flying an ultralight. Today was the second to last leg in their incredible 1285 mile journey. Tomorrow they will arrive at their winter home at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus, Florida.

We arrived at the chilly Dunnellon-Marion County Airport at 9:00 AM and watched the northern sky. The first ultralight, piloted by Richard van Heuvelen looped around the airport with a single Whooping Crane following his every move.

Shortly afterwards, Joe Duff came into view closely followed by four absolutely amazing Whooping Crane chicks. The crowd that gathered was hushed, not wanting to spook the fragile birds. It was fantastic - and very moving. After they flew over the trees, people clapped, cheered and cried. We spoke with supporters that come every year to get a glimpse of the birds whose numbers are up from a low of 16 to over 500.

Bill has seem Whooping Cranes in the wild in the San Luis Valley in Colorado, but until today, I had only seen them in captivity at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.

Whooping Cranes are larger than their more colorful Sandhill Crane cousins.

Obviously, I took lots and lots and lots of pictures! I also met some very nice people!

Every one's camera was clicking as they dipped down closer to the small crowd that had gathered to welcome them to Marion County.

After they left the birds just over the trees to spend the night, the pilots came back to the airport to greet the crowd. Richard arrived first - still in costume.

Joe followed.

Thank you Richard, Joe, Operation Migration and the Dunnellon Airport for this experience!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sewing, Quilting, Clean-up, Company & Birds!

Bill and I were thrilled to have son John here over Christmas - but even more thrilled to meet his girlfriend, Vanessa. She is definitely a keeper!

We drove to Tampa to spend a day with them after they returned from their New Year's weekend in Fort Myers and Key West. Vanessa had never seen a Manatee so we took her to the Manatee Viewing Area in Tampa. You can see the huge power plant in the background that generates the warm water that the Manatees are attracted to.

We saw lots of Manatees including this guy doing the backstroke. The water was clear and the viewing was much better than at Manatee Park in Fort Myers.

Bill challenged me to get a shot of this Pelican in flight. Not too shabby if I do say so myself!

There were tons of fish swimming around - but look how they kept out of the way of this stingray!

I had never seen a stingray swimming around before - so I took lots of pictures! The stingrays are actually quite cute.

Afterwards, we went to lunch in Ybor City (an historic neighborhood in downtown Tampa) before saying good-bye and heading back to Ocala.

Back at the compound, I've been busy sewing. This is a jacket that I made at a class over at a friend's house. It began life as a all black man's shirt.

We covered the collar, cut off the sleeves and added cuffs, tucked the back, cut off the hem and faced the inside. Later, I changed the buttons and added the handkerchief. It was fun to see how differently each of our projects turned out.

I've also been working on another quilt - this one will be as bright as the last one! I have all of the squares assembled and put together - I just need to add the border and assemble the back before it goes out to be machine quilted. My beginner quilting class starts this weekend so I can learn all the things I'm doing wrong.

We had a "minor" problem earlier this week. We were heading out and while I was getting ready, Bill decided to start the dishwasher. I had complained that the dishwasher wasn't doing a very good job - so he was checking it out. A few minutes later, I heard him yell that we had bubbles everywhere! Bill had added Jet Dri (or so he thought) to make it rinse better. Long story short: he actually added Dawn dish-washing liquid into the Jet Dri compartment. His reason? "It was blue."

This is Bubba - an adorable Havanese puppy that belongs to our very good friends Larry and Wendy. They were here visiting for the weekend. After returning home, Bubba fell into their pool and nearly drowned. Poor Bubba - I sure hope he's going to be okay.

I haven't forgotten about my birds. This is a Red-bellied Woodpecker and if you look closely, you can see the faint red on his chest that gives him his name.

Our back-yard feeders are busy all day long. I love sitting out in the Florida room watching them.

We have lots and lots of Bluebirds - and they get bluer and bluer the closer we get to Spring.

We enjoy the backyard feeders so much that I added a feeder in the front yard. Squirrels are not a problem, so I hung it in the Oak tree. Mrs. Cardinal found the new feeder almost immediately.

And so did this adorable Titmouse who paused from his lunch just long enough to pose for a quick picture. The bird on the left is a Chipping Sparrow and they arrive at the feeders in flocks.

I think I took this picture of a Common Moorhen on one of our walks. Funny, but my sister Beth seems to see the same birds at the same time when she walks the beach in North Carolina.

This picture is for my sister. This must be the year of the Armadillos! We've seen at least one on each of our walks - but none as cute as this one - standing up and posing for a picture. They do not have very good eyesight, so if you are very quiet, they just go on with their business. I thought they would be slow - they just LOOK slow - but once they hear you, they scurry off in a hurry.