Honeymoon

Salt water sloshed over the transom as our small boat motored from the relative calm of the shallow flats into the deeper waters of the channel which would take us through Hurricane Pass to the Gulf of Mexico and “big fish”. The little 15-foot craft was laden with four teenagers, fishing tackle, ice chest and groceries. As we approached the pass, the waters of the Gulf were all capped in white foam and appeared to form a watery wall warning against entry. Good sense prevailed. We came about and were content pulling in speckled trout and Spanish mackerel from the shallower but more peaceful waters of the bay. As Gini waited patiently for me to place another bait on her hook, she let the line and empty hook drag lazily through the turquoise water. “I got a fish!”, she exclaimed. A plump trout joined his friends in the ice chest. That was 50 years ago.

Catching fish with no bait. That’s the sort of person she is. A few weeks ago, as she was waiting for me to return from a hike, a wren flew in the open car window, perched on my pack in the back seat, chirped at her and flitted away. Strangers, birds, fish – and me – cannot resist her magical charm.

Old maps called it Sand Island. The local settlers referred to the place as Hog Island. In the 1940’s a northern developer built a dozen thatched huts on the sand and together with Life magazine ran a contest for newlyweds. The lucky winners got to spend two weeks on “Honeymoon Isle”. World War II interrupted blissful lives and the huts fell into disrepair. The name stuck, however. We spent many happy days on the beaches, sandbars and waters around Honeymoon Island when we were young. A bucket of cold chicken, watermelon, catching fish, playing in the clear waters under impossibly blue skies … how wonderful Life can be!

The state of Florida began acquiring the land on Honeymoon Island in the 1950’s and eventually placed it into the state park system. A causeway built in 1964 facilitated public access. Condominiums, concessions and crowds soon followed. Today almost one million visitors annually visit this park which has been consistently ranked in the top five beaches in the entire country. Now when Gini and I visit, our selective vision still sees only sand and water.

I recently traveled to Honeymoon Island with two talented birders and we spent a chilly but productive morning combing the beach, marsh and upland trails. With relative low temperatures and a “brisk” wind coming in from the Gulf of Mexico we didn’t have too many sunbathers to step around. We found over 60 species including five species of Plover, a group of 60 Red Knot, an unusually good look at a Clapper Rail and an uncommon White-crowned Sparrow.

It was a great day of birding.

Yes, of course there are pictures!

 

Even if you don’t get a good look at the Spotted Sandpiper, its characteristic tail bobbing as it feeds is a pretty good indication of its identification. In breeding season, the undersides will be covered in large dark spots.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

 

A Black-bellied Plover comes in for a landing on the shoreline. It lacks its namesake black belly during the winter.

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

 

Our smallest sandpiper, the Least Sandpiper, enjoys a bath in the cold water.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

 

One of the small “peep” sandpipers, the Western Sandpiper is distinguished from the Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers by dark colored legs and a slightly longer bill which normally droops a bit at the end.

Western Sandpiper

Western Sandpiper

 

Semipalmated Plovers are named for a partial webbing between the middle and outer toes but you need to be pretty close to see that feature.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

 

Just a bit larger than the above Semipalmated Plover, relatively large black bills help identify the Wilson’s Plover even at a distance.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover

 

Piping Plovers have a short “chunky” looking bill compared to other plovers. This species is threatened and endangered worldwide. The bird in the fourth image below sports a yellow leg band (ring) which was likely attached near the Great Lakes. I couldn’t get a look at the band number.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

 

Even smaller than the Piping Plover is the Snowy Plover. Its bill is a bit slimmer and these guys seem to always be running, screeching to a halt to probe the sand and then running off down the beach again. Unfortunately, this species is also threatened.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

 

Flipping over a rock can sometimes yield a meal for the Ruddy Turnstone and that’s how they got their name. They are also quick to turn over shells and, in this case, a whole pile of seaweed. Once this bird moved all the grass a horde of other birds swooped in to scoop up the goodies.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

 

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

 

Dunlins nest in the Arctic tundra and spend winter along our coasts. They have a longish bill which is usually curved downward. They can look fairly plain in their non-breeding plumage.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Dunlin

Dunlin

 

Similar in size to the Dunlin, Sanderlings also nest in the Arctic. It’s very pale in non-breeding plumage and its bill is not as long as a Dunlin’s and is usually straight. These are the birds we see at the beach in winter right at the edge of the water being chased by the waves.

Sanderling

Sanderling

Sanderling

Sanderling

 

Another tundra breeder, the Red Knot is normally pretty gray looking by the time they arrive in our area for the winter. Occasionally, they will begin to attain their beautiful reddish plumage in late spring before returning to the Arctic to nest.

Red Knot

Red Knot

Red Knot

Red Knot

 

Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitcher

Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitcher

 

Okay, I not only got carried away with a bunch of words but tried to stuff a lot of photographs in here as well. So, this adventure is —– TO BE CONTINUED.

 

Additional Information

Honeymoon Island State Park

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

 

 

 

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Circle of Friends

 

Parents are required to tell their newly fledged teenagers: “Always remember, nothing good happens after midnight.” Which, of course, has for centuries motivated teenagers throughout the universe to do everything in their power to try and discover what that magical time has to offer, because they know if it’s not good for them it must be FUN!!

Gini and I still sneak out after midnight for a bit of fun. There’s nothing quite like parking at the end of a secluded country lane, surrounded by complete darkness, the sky packed with so many stars it seems another wouldn’t fit, snuggling close next to the one you love and whispering “Was that a Screech Owl in the distance?”.

(NOTE: For the gullible amongst you who believe the above scenario could ever end that way, I have some Florida swampland to sell you.)

More birding trips than not start out in darkness since it takes time to travel to a destination and the “magical fun” time for many birds is a bit before the sky begins to lighten as it prepares for official sunrise. Here in sub-topical central Florida this is also the “magical fun” time for mosquitoes, so a thorough chemical bath is required before venturing into the marsh. The particular marsh for today’s visit has rapidly become known as a birding “hotspot”. That means on a weekend you likely won’t find a spot to park.

Circle B Bar Reserve (just “Circle B” to those who frequent the reserve) used to be a working cattle ranch and was acquired jointly in late 2000 by Polk County Environmental Lands and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The reserve is operated and maintained by the county. A recently built visitor’s center has conference rooms and very nice displays of flora and fauna one might find within the reserve. The reserve was developed to protect the floodplain of Lake Hancock which borders the reserve on the south and to restore the marsh of Banana Creek which flows from the north into Lake Hancock. Over eight miles of trails take the visitor on levees around the marsh, along the shoreline of the lake, through stands of oak hammock and hardwood swamp. It’s fairly routine to spot 50-60 species of birds in an outing with the added bonus of alligators, feral hogs, bobcats, otters, turtles, snakes, insects and a diverse array of flora. All of this within two miles of the city limits of Lakeland which has a population over 100,000.

I had only taken a few steps from the parking lot when I realized the big “moth” that buzzed by my ear was a hummingbird. Furiously dialing in an astronomically high ISO number on the camera, I could barely make out the little bundle of feathers in the darkness. I attempted to focus and fired off a few shots, fully expecting to trash them later. The images are, indeed, horrible, but there may be someone who has never seen a hummingbird in the dark so one is included below. The rest of the morning was a typical Circle B kind of day. So much to see, so little time. It seemed as if every few steps revealed some new wonder. A Purple Gallinule perched precariously on a slim limb searching for seeds, an American White Pelican flew over the marsh on the way to join a few thousand of his closest friends floating on the lake, young Whistling Ducks, dragonflies – in the winter, a multi-colored avian delight that looked like a refugee from a paint store war. As I encountered another crossroads in the path, my senses pulled me toward the unexplored while my internal alarm reminded me I told Gini I’d only be “a couple of hours”. That was four hours ago. Sigh. Another day can’t get here soon enough.

A few photographs cannot adequately provide the sense of being overwhelmed by Nature one has when visiting the Circle B. Which, of course, hasn’t stopped me from trying.

 

There’s nothing like an early morning fly-by of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird to get your adrenalin flowing! The mosquitoes here are as big but not nearly as colorful. And they require a blood donation before letting you pass.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

 

Purple Gallinules thrive in this lush marsh and will even go out on a limb to show off for visitors.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

 

This Tricolored Heron became annoyed with me trying to take a picture while he was trying to catch breakfast. I moved on quickly, but he still grumbled.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

 

Lake Hancock plays host each winter to several thousand American White Pelicans.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are residents here and love the vast marsh with all its hiding places to raise a family. A morning walk at the Circle B wouldn’t be complete without hearing the characteristic “whistle” in the sky as these large ducks commute back and forth.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

 

I surprised this Eastern Phoebe near the path and instead of taking flight he just gave me “the look”. I hurried along as requested.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

 

Even in the winter, House Wrens let the world know they’re just happy to be here. Me too.

Carolina Wren

House Wren

 

Common Yellowthroats chatter on every side of the footpath and dart in and out so fast you’re not sure if you saw a pretty yellow flower or a bird. I think this one is a bird……

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

 

Great Blue Herons are patient hunters and are usually rewarded for their efforts. This meal of Armored Catfish will take a bit of maneuvering to position it just right for swallowing whole without getting punctured by a stiff fin. The green specks on the fish are common duckweed.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Dragonflies and damselflies were enjoying a typical Florida winter day. Warm and sunny!

Carolina Saddlebags  (Tramea carolina)

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea Carolina)

Four-spotted Pennant - Male  (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant – Male (Brachymesia gravida)

Atlantic Bluet - Male  (Enallagma doubledayi)

Atlantic Bluet – Male (Enallagma doubledayi)

 

One of our most numerous winter visitors, the Palm Warbler, obviously admired my cap. Or, more likely, spotted a bug on it.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

 

Another permanent resident, the Limpkin, is represented in the marsh by one of the state’s largest populations. At dawn, the eerie calls of dozens of these distant rail relatives make it difficult to carry on a conversation. This one signaled that I should pass him on the right.

“Quite courteous is the Limpkin.

Provides instructions easy enough to follow that any chimp-kin.”

(Serious apologies to Ogden Nash.)

Limpkin

Limpkin

 

Walking along the lakeshore path provided occasional glimpses of Painted Buntings as they hopped into the grass and immediately flitted into the brambles and out of sight. While the females are a pleasing greenish, the gaudy males are dressed in every hue of the Artist’s palette.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

 

It’s always enjoyable to visit my “Circle B” of friends. The only downside is that with each visit my addiction grows stronger. But I’m certain I’m the only one thus affected …..

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

 

Additional Information

Circle B Bar Reserve

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