Beyond the BackyardLake Hancock Outfall Wetlands

Christmas Bird Count 2017 at the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands

Yesterday was the annual Lakeland Christmas Bird Count (CBC), and I was pleased to be asked again to join the team covering the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands.  The outfall wetlands is a restricted-access property across Lake Hancock from the Circle B Bar Reserve.

When I participated in the 2013 CBC and 2014 CBC surveys, the wetlands had just been restored.  There were large open ponds that attracted many rare birds, like American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts (rare in winter), Snail Kites, a Franklin’s Gull, even a Nelson’s Sparrow.  Now that it’s been a few years, the wetlands restoration project is going along great, but unfortunately for birders, that means that the ponds have filled in with cattails.  Although it’s still a fantastic place to bird, we didn’t have nearly as many rarities.

American White Pelicans on Lake Hancock
American White Pelicans on Lake Hancock.  We had a grand total of 43, just a tad bit lower than the 5-10 thousand we’ve seen in the past.

The day started at 5am for two hours of owling before the sun rose.  Now you may be thinking, it’s pretty dark outside at 5am, so how in the world did we find owls? By listening.  Our team leader Cole played owl calls, and we listened for raptors to respond.  But they didn’t.  In two hours of owling, we didn’t hear the first owl.  But the time wasn’t unproductive.  We also drove around the wetlands, stopping at quarter mile intervals to play back tapes of King Rail, Virginia Rail, Least Bittern, and Sora.  It was fun to hear the marshes echo with the calls of all the birds that answered.  It turned out that everybirdy liked the Virginia Rail calls the most. Including the Common Gallinules, whose laugh-like cackles reminded us how silly we were to be disturbing birds at that early hour.  Total species count before sunrise: 23.

I was glad when the sun rose.  My birding by ear skills have improved over the past few years, but I was no match for Cole or Nate.  It’s a lot easier to identify birds when you can see them.

There’s such a difference between “birding” and “bird photography.”  Birding involves covering large areas, and the goal is to maximize species counts.  Bird photography, on the other hand, involves spending quality time with a handful of birds, trying to get them in good light and good poses.  Your goal is to capture behaviors, like feeding or nesting.  Although I identify more with the bird photography side of the coin, I really enjoyed spending the day with birders, who always teach me about bird habitat, behaviors, and activities.  I think it makes me a better photographer overall.

We spent a good part of the morning covering the marsh habitat, where we found mostly wading birds, raptors, and ducks.  The ducks were super skittish.  We mostly identified them using Cole’s scope, which has an impressive range (it always surprises people to realize that scopes see farther than my Beast).  We found a variety of “good” duck species, like American Wigeon, a few Northern Pintail, and Gadwall.  No Buffleheads or Redheads, though.  Surprisingly, there we no terns and very few gulls.

Photographic highlights of the morning follow.

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant.  One of the more abundant species of the day.
Mallards in Flight
Mallards in Flight.  These mallards looked like they were fairly pure Mallards, with minimal signs of hybridization with Mottled Ducks.
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Northern Shoveler in Flight
Northern Shoveler in Flight.
Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis.  I examined every Glossy closely, but alas, none of them had white faces.
American Wigeon
American Wigeon.  The “good” ducks were at pretty long distances, mixed in with flocks of Blue-winged Teal.
Northern Pintail (Female)
Northern Pintail (Female).  She sat quietly undisturbed after a flock of Blue-winged Teal startled and vacated the pond.

While Cole and Nate counted ducks, my camera and I were distracted by a cooperative male Belted Kingfisher who went fishing in the pond right in front of me.  You can tell he is a male because his tummy lacks the rusty colors of the female.  Yep, this is one species where the female is the more colorful.  The kingfisher would hover in mid-air over the pond, then suddenly dive when he spotted a fish.  After grabbing the fish in his beak, he’d fly to a reed to eat.  Yum!

Belted Kingfisher in Flight
Belted Kingfisher in Flight
Belted Kingfisher with Fish
Belted Kingfisher with Fish

As the day went by, we headed for the woodsy areas to search for songbirds.  It’s fun to hear birders phishing and doing bird calls.  After a few minutes of calling, the trees over our heads would be hopping with small birds.  We found most of the warbler species: Prairie, Black-and-white, Yellow-throated, Pine, and of course, many Palms and Yellow-rumps.   Two Hermit Thrushes made brief appearances. Our best bird of the day was the Northern Waterthrush, who might have been a first-time bird for the count.  It was fun to thrash through the bushes and wander through the woods.  Such a break from my usual daytime routine!

Woods Habitat
Woods Habitat

Photographic highlights of the afternoon follow.

Northern Waterthrush
Northern Waterthrush.  Possibly a first-time bird on the Lakeland CBC.  He hopped out briefly for me to snap a few quick shots.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The bushes were full of these little clowns.  I loved how they hopped down to peer at the funny people making phishing noises.
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush.  I had just finished telling Cole that I was ready to see a Hermit Thrush.  Then one hopped onto a branch right in front of me.  What luck!
Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler.  I actually spotted this guy first! :)
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse.  These guys are just too cute.  One gave an unusual call and we captured a recording.  Citizen science at its best!
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  This was one of two birds on this tree.  It was fun to watch them interact as they flew in and out of the moss.

By 3pm when I had to leave, we had 93 species on our diurnal list.  Not bad for a Big Day in (inland) Polk County!

eBirdFind my birding list from today on eBird.

(nocturnal list)

eBirdFind my birding list from today on eBird.

(diurnal list)

Note: I frequently receive questions from out-of-town birders about accessing the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands.  It is a restricted-access property, and we had to get a permit to enter it for the CBC.  I do not know of any planned field trips to the outfall wetlands.  If you are planning a trip to the area, consider visiting the Circle B Bar Reserve across the lake.  

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3 thoughts on “Christmas Bird Count 2017 at the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands

  1. Thank you for again adding your expertise to the Lakeland CBC! Y’all had a good day. Highlight for my team in the Highlands sector was a single Bufflehead in a pasture creek (!) and a young Sharp-shinned Hawk. Fun day!

    Very nice in-flight photographs, Jess!

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