Oh Dark Thirty

We have all heard the sage advice of experts, professionals, spouses and others who know a lot more than we do. All the good stuff happens early. A photographer is only able to take decent images an hour before sunrise and up to two hours afterward. The remaining hours are left over for amateurs to amuse themselves. Wildlife is only active immediately before and after the sun peeks over the horizon. All of nature apparently lapses into a coma once the sky becomes illuminated. This special time even has been assigned an official designation: “The Golden Hours”. There is probably an International Bureaucracy Of Properly Naming Things somewhere which is responsible for providing us a convenient label for the rare item which does not already have one.

Ahh, “The Golden Hours”! The mere sound of it makes you want to participate in whatever it has to offer. Who doesn’t like gold? And to think, you can enjoy actual hours of it! What you don’t know is that in order to take part in an activity during this anointed time means getting out of your comfortable bed at an early hour. Very early. The further away your objective, the earlier it will be when you must awaken. From a deep, pleasant sleep. One must be truly dedicated. Or a bit nuts.

There I was, standing on a dirt road in the middle of a VERY DARK forest a full three hours before the sun was scheduled to make an appearance. Wait a minute. Why so far ahead of those “Golden Hours”? I could have had more sleep! The awful truth is, if you want to discover what night birds are active in an area, you must be in that area, well, at night. On this occasion, we made three such stops in the space of a half-hour and were rewarded with hearing the calls of Barred Owls, Eastern Screech Owls and Chuck-will’s-widows. For me, the angst of setting the alarm for such an unheard of time faded completely and reminded me why I do this over and over again. The booming hoot of the large owl dwelling in the swamp, the soft gurgle of the diminutive Screech Owl, the piercingly clear whistled name of our largest Nightjar – each now a wonderful memory.

Satisfied for the moment, we headed down the road to explore a few new places to see what they might offer. As the day progressed, we once again were amazed at the amount of life we discovered active outside the “Golden Hours”! Critters were everywhere! It was obviously Spring and we enjoyed blooming flowers, greening trees, beautiful butterflies, birds building nests, creatures of all types going about the daily business of surviving another day. We didn’t see all there was to see nor did yours truly take any spectacular photographs. We decided to leave such things to the experts.

Check out Additional Information below for some really neat places to explore if you’re in the area . Visiting during the “Golden Hours” is not required.

 

Grab a cuppa and come along to see what’s happening during the “Other Hours”!

 

Swallow-tailed Kites have returned to our area to begin the breeding cycle. They will be in Florida (and a few other scattered areas in the southeastern U.S.) until mid-August when they’ll migrate to South America for the winter. These striking birds grab a weed or branch for nest construction and during flight will transfer the item from talons to beak, probably to make landing easier.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

At Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, this Carolina Wren used an overhanging eave at the rear of a building to shelter her nest. Her mate was busy bringing her insects to eat. We backed away quietly so they wouldn’t be disturbed.

Carolina Wren and Nest

Carolina Wren and Nest

 

Speaking of nests, we saw a White-eyed Vireo flying with nesting material and managed to discover the nest. Males are singing loudly just about everywhere right now. (Full disclosure. The photo of the bird is from a different time and location. Just wanted to show what the species looks like in case there are those who aren’t familiar with them.)

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

Nest - White-eyed Vireo

Nest – White-eyed Vireo

 

Migratory Sandhill Cranes which enjoyed our relatively warm winter have departed for their breeding grounds. Local Florida Sandhill Cranes (a sub-species of Grus canadensis, G.c. pratensis) are typically monogamous and begin laying eggs in late winter through early spring. These two either haven’t started a family yet or are “just friends”.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

Most “birders” tend to give short shrift to domestic fowl. The Muscovy Duck is usually ignored but once in awhile they can be intriguing to watch. This one kept dipping its head underwater, shaking vigorously and kept repeating the process. It may have been trying to rid itself of mites or perhaps was just having fun.

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy Duck

 

The Yellow-throated Vireo is pretty solitary. They sing their “conversational” song from atop a tree for all to hear. Once breeding is complete, they return to being loners.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

 

Black-and-White Warblers have the feeding habits of a Nuthatch, running down a tree trunk head first and dangling upside-down from a branch in pursuit of insects. This female lacks the black cheeks of the male.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler

 

Another songster that seems to be heard all over the place in Spring, the Northern Parula is a beautiful mix of blue-gray and yellow.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

 

A Burrowing Owl stands next to the entrance of a burrow and contemplates a Bumble Bee passing by. He didn’t go after the big insect, maybe due to a past unpleasant experience?

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

 

This pair of Burrowing Owls fixed their large yellow eyes on me as soon as the camera clicked. They didn’t seem to be agitated and probably felt they were sufficiently hidden in the grass. If it weren’t for those eyes, I probably never would have spotted them.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

 

Back near home, we’ve been keeping an eye on a Great Horned Owl who made a nest in an old Osprey nesting platform. This platform is about 20 yards from the local fire department training tower. Sirens, fire, smoke, spraying water. No problem. She raised two healthy owlets who recently left the nest. This is what the family looked like two weeks ago.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

 

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

 

 

 

If you’re able to take advantage of those “Golden Hours”, by all means, do so! However, it seems there is an awful lot going on out in Nature at all hours of the day and night. So, don’t worry about getting out of that warm bed at Oh-Dark-Thirty. Just get up when you’re ready. Seriously, get up! Now!

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Dade Battlefield State Park

Flying Eagle Preserve

Withlapopka Community Park

Withlacoochee State Forest – Croom Tract

Posted in Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Springing Into Action !

Each season of the year offers something wonderful for us all to enjoy. Summer conjures up images of a trip to the beach or the cool mountains and backyard barbeques. Autumn means a riot of color in the woods and migrating birds to observe. As winter approaches, those blessed with mounds of snow to play in look forward to the cleansing effect the white stuff seems to have and marvel at all the tracks left by unseen creatures in a favorite tract. Springtime. Ahh, that most special time of the year we each await with utmost anticipation. Dew time. Specifically, Honeydew time. “Honey, dew the yard!” “Honey, dew the windows!” “Honey, dew the gutter cleaning!” “Honey, dew the taxes!”

Huh? Wait a minute. That’s not where I meant to go with this……..

Springtime. Ahh, there are birds out there flying north and others are building nests and some are already having babies for goodness’ sake! We must act now! Lists must be made! Pictures must be taken! Data must be compiled! Reports must be sent! More importantly, we need more time together.

(Pretty hard to argue with that last one, right?)

As our Spring has sprung in earnest around here, we’ve really been getting out a lot. The last blog was a compilation of several spots visited and this one will be the same. The time period covered is about ten days. Places visited are all in central west Florida and include: Lake Bonny Park (Lakeland), Paynes Creek Historic State Park (Bowling Green), Peace River Hammock (Fort Meade), Sumter County (several back roads, no specific place), West Lake Wales Road (near Lake Wales airport) and Hardee Lakes Park (Bowling Green). Some of the above were new to us and others were return visits to old friends.

Come on! Put a Spring in your step! Let’s go!

 

A pair of Turkey Vultures found a bench they like. Sort of reminds me of a couple of birders I know……

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

 

Loggerhead Shrikes may already have a nest nearby, but they weren’t telling.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

 

It’s easy to overlook the beauty of a Boat-tailed Grackle as they are usually numerous, loud and behave like bullies.

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

 

Our Florida state bird, the Northern Mockingbird, is very adaptable and will make a home near human habitation or in the remotest part of the state. And sing happily about it non-stop!

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

 

Gini insisted we take what looked like a maintenance road around a cypress hammock and (as usual) she was absolutely right. A Barred Owl looked up at our approach, decided we weren’t a threat and continued his deep sleep with a big sigh.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

 

Not far from the above owl was a Great Horned Owl on a nest. We didn’t want to get too close and disturb the egg sitting duties so we snapped a few distant photos and quietly retreated.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

 

Yellow Jessamine blooms were in profusion. Taking pictures is preferred but if you decide to pick a flower or grab a branch be certain to wash your hands well as the sap is poisonous.

Yellow Jessamine

Yellow Jessamine

 

All decked out in breeding plumage, a Tricolored Heron expressed his displeasure at my presence on his stretch of shoreline.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

 

This Little Blue Heron didn’t care who was nearby as he was too busy concentrating on a potential meal to be disturbed.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

 

Florida Tickseed is a variety of Coreopsis, which includes the Florida state wildflower.

Florida Tickseed (Coreopsis floridana)

Florida Tickseed (Coreopsis floridana)

 

The Common Mullein is an introduced species and can grow over six feet tall. Parts of the plant have been used as herbal remedies (but don’t take my word for it – research first!). I thought the colors and patterns of the small flowers were special.

Common Mullein (Verbascum rhapsus)

Common Mullein (Verbascum rhapsus)

 

Northern Shovelers will soon be “shoveling” off for their breeding homes further north. The male is striking in coloration and the oversized bill is unique.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

 

Although many Northern Parulas migrate through our area, we also have a resident population which remains year-around and breeds. This one thought he was hidden in the shade.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

 

Another winter visitor is the Vesper Sparrow. He will often fly up to an exposed perch, unlike most of his little brown brethren who dive into the grass and run away.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

 

Pretty soon, our area will be devoid of tail-wagging Palm Warblers, which is hard to believe, since they just about form a carpet around here during the winter. They will exchange their relatively drab plumage for much brighter yellow underparts and vibrant chestnut streaks and caps.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

 

This Downy Woodpecker probed around and around this small pine tree so fast I got dizzy just watching it.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

 

Such a flimsy-looking nest for the large White-winged Dove! I couldn’t believe she intended to actually lay eggs in it!

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

 

Even in the dense fog, there is no mistaking the profile and colors of a Wood Duck.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

 

A tremendous splashing near the shore of a lake followed by several alarm calls of herons and egrets led me to investigate. I was surprised to encounter a Coyote! They usually skulk about at night and keep their distance from us two-legged critters. Fortunately, he took one look at me and almost turned himself inside out running away. (I have that effect on a lot of people, too.)

Coyote

Coyote

 

Ospreys are large birds and require large nests in which to raise their families. This fellow seems intent on having the biggest and strongest place in the neighborhood!

Osprey

Osprey

 

Any dental hygienist would praise the fine condition of these teeth. This proud Mama ‘gator was surrounded by her family (I counted a total of 14 “children”). For a little perspective, the “baby” alligators in the second image ranged from about 12 inches to about 3 feet long. I estimate Mama at over ten feet (>3 meters). (Did I mention being grateful for telephoto lenses?)

Since alligator eggs typically hatch in late summer and fall, the smallest of this group is probably about 5-6 months old and the largest (about a 3-footer in the right of the photo) is likely around three years old.

American Alligator

American Alligator

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

Green Herons are expert hunters and exhibit incredible patience. It seems their beak moves towards its target so slowly at first and then the strike happens so fast we can’t see it.

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

These Florida Peninsula Cooters have found a nice dry log on which to catch a little sunshine. Their maximum length is about 15 inches and I think these were close to that.

Florida Peninsula Cooter

Florida Peninsula Cooter

 

From my resting place along the grassy bank, it was easy to see how the Peace River got its name.

Peace River

Peace River

 

I’m afraid Gini almost went through the windshield when I “vigorously” applied the brakes after spotting this year’s first Burrowing Owl. The image is poor due to the distance involved and because it was my first attempt at taking a photograph through my new spotting scope. We didn’t see a mate and couldn’t quite tell if it was adjacent to a burrow. We’ll keep checking on it as the season progresses.

Burrowing Owl (Digiscoped)

Burrowing Owl (Digiscoped)

 

As I was scanning the pasture where we found the owl above, I found a new “life bird”! Two Whooping Cranes were feeding among the cattle. These are an endangered species and these two individuals are part of an experimental group breeding in central Florida. All of these birds have large yellow leg markers and each is equipped with a radio transmitter so biologists can track their movements.

West Lake Wales Road

Whooping Crane

 

 

There was no doubt this Paper Wasp was watching my every move as it attended a new larva. I respected its desire for privacy and backed away – quickly.

Paper Wasp

Paper Wasp

 

Red-winged Blackbirds are pairing up, males are singing, nest sites are being scouted and the marsh is a noisy place!

Red-winged Blackbird (Female)

Red-winged Blackbird (Female)

Red-winged Blackbird (Male)

Red-winged Blackbird (Male)

 

Butcher Bird! That’s the alias of the Loggerhead Shrike (as well as other shrikes around the world). These birds will often impale their prey (insects/lizards) on a small branch, thorn or barb of a fence and eat it piecemeal. Sometimes, you’re just hungry and don’t feel like a formal dining experience. That was the case with this guy as he swallowed the Mole Cricket (Scapteriscus sp.) so fast I missed the picture!

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

 

It’s an exciting time outdoors! So, “dew” yourself a favor and “Spring” into action! Don’t forget to have fun!

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

 

Additional Resources

Lake Bonny Park

Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Peace River Hammock

Hardee Lakes Park

 

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

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