In addition to the gathering of friends and family and a bounty of food, the Christmas season brings with it the much anticipated Christmas Bird Count. This year, Aubrey’s mom, Sue, joined me in doing my second Count of the year. Kudos to Sue for her eagerness to participate after two long days of driving down from Iowa. Also in our group were my good friend Emily and a pair of biologists, Brad and Amanda from the USFWS and NOAA respectively.
We left the house at 0330 and arrived at our destination about 0445. We did a little owling and then as the sun came up we went to the guard house at the Gulf Power Plant where we navigated the attendant through a series of communication errors. In a nutshell, access passes and all associated paperwork was taken care of well in advance as has been done for years. However, somebody in middle management neglected to pass this information to the attendant, so after a series of early morning phone calls to the higher ups on Saturday, the problem was resolved. It’s not everyday you get to call the boss at sunrise on his day off. After that we slipped thru the security gates and checked off our target species, black-crowned night herons. The species only turns up in one or two spots and in small numbers in the Count Circle so it was important we compare the numbers to the previous year’s records and add the species to the List. A total of 9 birds were present in the warm water discharge canals. While scoping the canal we were also provided the opportunity to educate and interact with a few workers who were curious about what we doing.
After a bit of birding we left the restricted access area and entered Maher farms, a very large tract owned by real estate baron, St. Joe Corporation. Although I am not terribly familiar with the property’s history, as I understand it, St. Joe tried to farm Shrimp in the 70's and 80's after altering the hydrology of the salt marshes to control salinity. Apparently, the venture failed due to pathogen control issues. This is very similar to what the Federal Government did to establish the renowned St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County - dike and dam salt marshes and control hydrology to provide migratory waterfowl (duck) habitat. In any case, the tract consisted of a series of canals and dikes and roads. The uplands consisted of recently thinned pines (the heavy equipment was still on site and there was fresh green wood, so they were in only days before). After we exhausted the canals and woodlands we turned our efforts and energy to the marshes, open water areas, and mudflats. Unfortunately we weren’t able to cover a tremendous amount of ground due to Brad’s bum knee and the tide not being conducive to covering more ground.
We covered several miles in stiff winds and cold weather, but in the end, it was worth it. We picked up quite a few species of shorebirds (plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns,) and aquatic birds (ducks, herons, grebes, egrets…) along with numerous raptors. One of the highlights for the group was spotted by Eagle Eye Emily, who located 58 great egrets in a very distant salt marsh. I also picked up a life bird: the swamp sparrow. The robins were out in full swing- one flock we estimated 1500 birds and to be honest it was conservative - I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than 2500 feathered friends in that group. By the way, that many robins generate a lot of noise.
We ended the day approximately 12 hours after the sun came up and headed for a local restaurant where we swapped stories and warmed up with food/beverages (although our service was poor and food cold, but you get the idea). After dinner it was a 90 min drive, making it nearly a 17 hour day.
To celebrate the end of the year we headed to some of our favorite public lands in the region: Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It finally warmed up after another early cold snap here in North Florida, so it was a beautiful way to spend the last day of the year. Many other families must have thought the same as both parks were very busy.
Our first stop, and the main goal of the day, was Wakulla Springs. Wakulla Springs is a popular tourist stop, with people coming from around the globe to see one of the deepest freshwater springs in the world. Boat tours provide visitors with a rare opportunity to see Florida’s wildlife up close, including several species of birds, alligators, turtles, and even manatees during the winter months. The cave at the source of the spring is 185 feet down and on a clear day, you can see all the way to the bottom. Unfortunately, the water is usually too dark from overgrowth of plant life, likely caused by human impacts (i.e. fertilizer runoff). I have never been to the park on a day when the glass bottom boat tours are running, and the rangers will inform you that this may only happen a couple of days out of the year. Even if you can’t see to the bottom of the spring, the waters that flow from it, forming the Wakulla River, are usually crystal clear, making it easy to see the fish, turtles, and manatees swimming below.
We had heard from several sources that there was a large group of manatees seeking refuge in the warmer waters of the spring this winter, and Matt had only seen manatees in south Florida. We arrived a little before noon and were fortunate enough to get the last seats for the 12:00 boat tour. We saw the usual suspects (alligators, Suwannee river cooters, common moorhens, and black vultures), as well as an American bittern, bald eagle, and three yellow-crowned night herons. Before we even got on the boat, Matt got a glimpse of the manatees hanging out near the dock, but we got an even better look from the boat. During the tour we saw six manatees! During the winter months they seek out warmer waters such as Wakulla Springs, which is a constant 69 degrees year round. These gentle mammals often fall victim to boat motors as is evidenced by the scars visible on their backs.
After we accomplished our manatee goal at Wakulla Springs we headed south for our annual winter visit to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in search of wintering ducks. We came up with a decent species list and enjoyed the warm weather. Some of the highlight species were redheads, northern shovelers, dozens of tricolored herons (the highest density we’d ever seen), another American bittern, and, I believe, a marsh wren. We also saw thousands of peeps (e.g. little shorebirds such as least sandpiper) that, without a tripod for our spotting scope, were next to impossible to identify. Even with a spotting scope I’m not sure I would have been able to ID them, as peeps are one of the hardest groups for me to identify! We just wanted to do some leisurely birding, and to give you an idea of how hard we were trying, at one point Matt was snoozing in his pickup while I walked one of the dikes. A full list for the day can be found below.
The final highlight of the day was a mother alligator with her babies resting on her back! Even though they are common, I will never get tired of alligators.