It’s truly a joy to spend a day outside with a group of people who are passionate about doing what they love – watching birds. Yesterday was the 50th annual Lakeland Christmas Bird Count, a whole day set aside to count the birds, ordinary and rare, within a specified “count circle.” The day starts with “owling” in the pitch black pre-dawn, which involves playing bird call tapes in the hopes that owls will answer. (The owls are unlikely to be awake or visible after sunrise.) Then a day of counting birds in the warm sunlight, recording the exact number of each species seen within your group’s assigned section of land. Rarities are always fun to record, but it is equally important to record accurate numbers of very common birds (yes, even the buzzards). The Christmas Bird Counts were started in the early 1900s as a friendly alternative to the traditional bird hunting contests. Now they are a vital part of the birdwatching community, and data is provided to the national Audubon Society as a citizen science contribution to the monitoring of our nation’s birding population.
I was thrilled to be asked to join in the Lakeland count again this year, after last year’s incredible count yielded 5 fun new species for the count area. I was part of the team that surveyed the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands, an access-restricted SWFWMD property on the south side of Lake Hancock. It’s across the lake from one of my favorite photography locations, the Circle B Bar Reserve. The outfall wetlands is part of a restoration project intended to improve the quality of the water that flows out of Lake Hancock into Saddle Creek. The newly flooded habitat and the lack of people make the place a magnet for wintering birds. It’s always such a pleasure to visit!
My first bird of the day was a flyby Northern Harrier, the so-called “gray ghost” that flies low over wetlands.
A quick trip down to the edge of Lake Hancock yielded a nice Spotted Sandpiper (sans spots, because he’s in winter plumage).
As the sun peeked over the horizon and dazzled the land with its rays, our count leaders strategized and I slipped down to the water’s edge to photograph a few Northern Shovelers that were near the shore. We saw lots of shovelers over the course of the day.
One of the stars of the Outfall Wetlands is the American Avocet, a bird known to winter along Florida’s coast. They fly north to the northern Great Plains region in the springtime to breed. It is very unusual to find them inland, and they are regulars at the Outfall Wetlands. First included in the CBC count last year, they were an “expected” unusual bird this year, but that didn’t make them any less exciting to me. I love their delicate beaks and those tall bluish legs.
We counted a nice flock of Black Skimmers, whose familiar bark alerted us to their presence long before we saw them in flight. Black Skimmers are another bird more commonly found on Florida’s coast, although they are also regulars at the “manmade islands” of several downtown Lakeland lakes.
We found lots of Caspian Terns and Laughing Gulls. The Caspian Terns have bright orange, almost reddish, beaks, which distinguish them from similar terns. The Laughing Gulls were in their drab winter plumage, but they still seemed to laugh at us as we scanned the flocks, hoping for a rarity mixed in.
Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants dotted the trees and the red buoys near the pump station. I always like to see the cormorants decorating Nature’s Christmas trees! We spotted one flying with nesting material, a sign that springtime and nesting season are near. (Yes, while most of the country is covered in snow, nesting season is already underway in Florida!)
We headed into the wooded areas to look for songbirds. Believe it or not, it was almost lunchtime before we found our first cardinal! One of our first small birds was this Blue-headed Vireo, the first of several to be seen throughout the day.
A nice Prairie Warbler came out to say hello. Unlike some of the birds at the Outfall Wetlands, he wasn’t afraid of my camera! He also cooperated and posed at the edge of the tree for me to get a clear photo. He needs to teach some of the other birds to do that. :)
I really enjoy participating in the Christmas Bird Counts, partly because it’s such fun to work alongside some of the state’s top birders. It’s amazing to see them identify birds at a glance, even the birds that are far away that I hadn’t even yet noticed. They are also really good at birding by ear, identifying the birds by sound alone. I was proud to help contribute four American Goldfinches to the count. I heard them flying overhead for several minutes before I finally saw them!
This Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was a nice find. We were playing a tape of a Tufted Titmouse call, which tends to bring in a lot of small birds. After a while, the calls also brought in a couple of Tufted Titmouse too.
Another thing that I’m learning is how to identify the types of habitat where the birds “should” be. When I first started birding, I’d see long lists of birds seen on the same day that I was at Circle B, when I’d only seen a tiny subset of the species. Well, certainly practice makes perfect when it comes to noticing and identifying species, but it also helps to know where the birds like to hang out. For example, a lot of sparrows like open grassy areas. Meadowlarks are almost always at the tops of small pine trees. Shorebirds are picky about water depth, which leads to yearly variations in their wintering grounds. This year we had a lot of rain, and the ponds are too deep for the little birds. Funny thing, they don’t like to put their eyes into the water when they feed! (I wouldn’t either, if predatory eagles were flying overhead…)
The above is my very bad photo of a Stilt Sandpiper, one such shorebird who was feeding way out in the water. He’s considered a good find in the wetlands, and I think he was the only one we saw yesterday.
We saw a good number of Osprey over the course of the day. They sure seemed to like to splash in the not-so-deep parts of the water. The poor little shorebirds didn’t appreciate having their morning breakfasts disturbed by bathing birds!
One of the most common birds at this time of year is the small Palm Warbler. Warblers can be confusing to identify if you are a beginning birder, but there’s a trick to identifying the Palm Warbler. Look for him to bob his tail up and down a lot.
We saw a record number of Marsh Wrens, tiny birds who like to hide deep in the reeds of the marsh. Our group alone exceeded last year’s count for the entire circle. They were all over the Outfall Wetlands!
A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew over the marsh, startling the birds underneath him. He took to the air and circled over my head, amusing the people who watched me try to hold my Beast lens almost directly over my head. He gave me a break, though, and circled back at a nicer angle. You can tell he’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk instead of the very similar Cooper’s Hawk by the bend in his wings when you see him in flight.
I was happy to find several small groups of Hooded Mergansers, or “Hoodies” as they are affectionately called. These are diving ducks who look like they have such fun as they dive deep and emerge dripping with water. They are one of my favorite winter visitors. Look at those beautiful crested heads!
After a picnic lunch in the shade of a big tree, we compared totals with the other members of our survey group. Our group total was over 100 species at lunchtime! We looked through the checklist to see which birds we had missed in the morning, then spent the afternoon looking for those birds in particular. We also scanned each group of ducks and gulls – you never know when a nice Northern Pintail or a Franklin’s Gull will show up!
Of course, when we found some pintails, they were very far away. Their chocolate-brown heads and distinctive pin-shaped tails make the males easy to recognize. Next year they need to come closer to the camera!
Cole spotted four Fulvous Whistling-ducks sitting out in the marsh. Their cousins, the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, are very common around Lake Hancock. The Fulvous whistlers are fairly rare and very hard to find. They like to hide in the grasses, so your best bet to finding them is to spot them in flight. I tried to get closer to get a better shot, only to scare them away. :(
We drove back toward the pump house, only to find the road covered by a couple hundred American White Pelicans. The huge flocks we’d been seeing all morning had converged, and several thousand birds were feeding in one pond near the road. I immediately hopped out of the car and tried to photograph the sheer numbers of birds we were seeing. It was so amazing! When they fly over your head, you hear this great “swoosh” of their wings. (If you feel the need to look up in awe, keep your mouth closed!) I had trouble doing justice to the scene with my camera. Finally I pulled out my iPhone and did some videos. So many birds!!!
A return trip to the pump house yielded a Purple Gallinule, hundreds more cormorants, and a few little Green Herons. They sounds so irritated when they call to each other in flight!
My favorite photo op of the day was with the Snail Kites, who are new to the Lakeland count this year. As the exotic apple snail becomes more widespread, the range of the Snail Kite is expanding as well. We were thrilled to find FIVE Snail Kites all perched together in a clump of trees early in the day. But in the afternoon, they were feeding in the small ponds, and they flew really really close to me. I had a great time trying to photograph them as they swooped in and out. Look at those long talons, perfect for grabbing an apple snail from the water, and that long curved beak, designed to extract the prey from the shell!
Another bird who feeds on apple snails is the Limpkin, who had a record high count in the CBC. They are clearly doing well in Polk County! I heard the small wheezy sound of young chicks at least once yesterday, so I know the population is continuing to grow.
Our group heard several rails in the early morning, but was unsure whether the identification was King Rail or Virginia Rail based on call alone. (We ultimately settled on King.) We tried to use calls to bring a rail out into the open where we could see it. The silly birds probably stood under the cover of the vegetation laughing at the silly people with the small metallic bird device. Oh well, at least we tried. It gave me the opportunity to spot this Eastern Phoebe, perched tall in the reeds in a characteristic marsh habitat.
As the sun started to set, the afternoon light glowed on the landscape. I hopped out to photograph the Black-necked Stilts (another inland rarity) next to the American Avocets. Look at their long legs!! The avocet was asleep, with his beak tucked under his wing, when the stilt wandered by and preened himself.
Our Outfall Wetlands group counted well over 100 species over the course of the day, but our car had the goal of breaking 100 species by ourselves. By 4:30 we had 97 species. We knew we could pick up Loggerhead Shrike as we left. Amazingly, we never spotted a Northern Mockingbird, so we looked for those for a while as we drove out. The mockingbirds mocked us, but we did see a small group of Wild Turkeys on the side of the road! 98…
The shrike was at his expected location, leaving us with 99 species for the day. A Big Day indeed! We headed to the countdown dinner, where our totals were combined with the totals from other groups. It was interesting to hear the totals. I was saddened to hear that we counted only 3 Roseate Spoonbills, one of my favorite birds. Brown Thrasher and Eastern Towhee numbers are dropping due to habitat loss. Only a handful of owls were reported. Certain sparrows that were common forty years ago haven’t been reported in a decade. Yet other species, like the Limpkins and Black-necked Stilts, were found in record numbers.
As the sun set on this 50th annual Christmas Bird Count, I was happy to have gotten the opportunity to participate. Bringing my Beast lens was fun this year, as it let me get better close-ups of the rare birds. But as much as I enjoy the photography, it was also fun to join in with a group of people who are all about seeing and protecting our feathered friends. I resolved next year to bring not only the camera, but also my binoculars, with the intent of counting more than just the coots. ;-)
A big thanks to Cole Fredericks and Bob Snow for organizing the count, and to all the other participants, who made yesterday such a fun day. :)
Find my birding list from today on eBird.
Want to learn more about nature photography at Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands?
Check out my Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
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