I landed at Palm Beach airport at 9am, and left the rental lot at 9:30am. It never ceases to amaze me, that if you're willing to pull yourself out of bed, and pay someone to drive you in a plane, you can be in far-flung places by the time everyone else is just about getting to work. JetBlue have a convenient, direct flight to Palm Beach, that's timed perfectly for a late morning attempt at Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman's Sparrow (they should advertise this more.)
These two birds are often found together - largely because they're so picky in their habitat preferences. Having picky habitat preferences isn't like being cool and lactose-intolerant, but generally bodes ill for the future of those species. For these birds, they're holding on only due to careful habitat management by the state. The woodpecker has rapidly disappeared from many states in which it was previously found - becoming further concentrated in the southeast.
St. Sebastian River Preserve is actively managed by fire, to maintain a low carpet of transitional growth under the pine forest. The sandy trails, huge buzzing insects, oppressive heat, burned palms give the place a prehistoric feel.
About 20 minutes into the preserve, as I reached the encouragingly-named Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail, I hear the trill of a sparrow. Clambering over burned palms, and hopefully not unburned snakes, I get close enough to see the singing bird - a Bachman's Sparrow! It continues to sing, and show off it's gray chest, large bill and rufous head pattern. I thought this might be a tough one - so very happy to get this bird so quickly. In fact - it's my 28th sparrow of the year - (only 5 to go! Damn you Henslow's Sparrow)
I continued, along Deer Link. I was looking for the nesting trees of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker - apparently marked by white paint. I didn't see any, but did hear a faint "pic" note. I'd been listening for drumming, or tapping, but this sounded like a woodpecker call. But I couldn't see a woodpecker - even after 5 minutes of scanning the few pines closest to me. Finally, low down on a trunk I spotted some movement. Even before raising my bins, I could see the white cheek patch with my naked eye - a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! I watched as it flew to a nearby trunk, and hop down the trunk, to only a foot or so off the ground. It was foraging for food, sometimes gently tapping, but never drumming. As I looked around me, I could see trees with white paint on - so this bird was presumably not far from it's nesting site.
No Northern Bobwhite though - which are here, and which I keep missing elsewhere. Hmmm. I'm worried this might become a problem bird later in the year...
It was only 1pm, and I thought I'd have enough time to drive to the west coast of Florida, and try for Nanday Parakeets in St. Pete, and possibly check out Fort de Soto, where a Black-whiskered Vireo had been hanging out for the past week. (I'd heard BWVI in Key West, but never saw it - and for a life bird, I really wanted to see it and its famous whiskers.) Also - having missed Gray Kingbird in my previous FL trip (I was slightly too early) I had a chance for this at the Fort.
Driving through FL is a real joy - there are so many birds around that I'm sure most Florida birders keep a car list of birds they've seen (probably larger than most non-car Massachusetts lists.) Mine today included Sandhill Crane, Cattle Egret, Swallow-tailed Kite, White Ibis and Wood Stork. Though vultures (Black and Turkey), by far, are the most common bird seen.
Fort de Soto is a squiggly peninsula reaching out from the southern point of St. Petersburg. It's clear why this place attracts and funnel migrants. What wasn't clear was how to bird this place - I'd stupidly left my "Birding in Florida" guide at home - a book that really is indispensable if you're ever doing anything like the title suggests. I knew the Vireo had been seen "between the ranger's house and the fountain". I immediately found the HQ building, which I took to be the former, and a nearby water fountain (actually two) which I assumed to be the latter. What I didn't find was the Vireo. There were a small number of warblers - common ones which would in the coming weeks would hit Massachusetts in good numbers, and which for now were new year birds: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and American Redstart. But no Gray Kingbird. It was windy, hot, there were no other birders, and I still needed the Nandays.
Nanday Parakeet is a bird that I spent a lot of time trying to track down in Miami. That's because if you're trying to track down a Nanday Parakeet, Miami is a pretty lousy place to look. They're there - but not in good numbers, and not at reliable spots. St Petersburg is a "reliable spot". I had several parks to check, so I was feeling pretty good. Until, that is, I wound down the windows to listen for them, which reminded me of the hours in Texas looking for Green Parrot, and I remembered that I hated aimlessly driving slowly around shitty urban areas looking and listening for parrots. And looking like a complete weirdo while doing so. I was just thinking this as I turned a corner, and immediately identified the raucous noise outside as parrot noise - and the bird flying headlong towards the car as a Nanday Parakeet. Black head, green body, long tail. Check. There were about 10 sitting on a chain-link fence. I pulled over, and they all took off, screaming as they fled far off into the distance - reminding me why chasing these birds is so time-consuming, as they cover a large territory.
Nanday Parakeets are now a stable population in the wild (mainly Florida) after escaping from captivity (the birds occur naturally in South America.) They were added to the ABA list in Dec 2012. Also known as Black-hooded Parakeets, which seems like a very helpful name (Nanday doesn't.) But, it was an important exotic tick, and meant I wouldn't have to come back and do this again!
That leaves one other exotic parrot-like bird: Budgerigar. Looking on eBird, there's only one place in the whole country where they've been seen this year, and in very small numbers. That place is about an hour and a half north of St. Pete, and would be where I'd end my day of birding. The previously self-supporting Budgerigar populations (which led to them being added to the ABA list) are no more. In fact, Budgerigar is in serious danger of being delisted - which means I need to see one before that happens!
If driving around a city slowly looking and listening for parrots seems odd, then driving around a small residential street looking into people's yard for budgerigars on feeders, seems, at best, deeply suspicious. Never quite able to get over my inherent guilt while doing this, the final hour before sunset was pretty unpleasant, all the more so for not getting the bird. While checking birds on wires for budgerigars, I did get an oddly out-of-place single Eastern Bluebird. A long-overdue year bird, and definitely not where I was expecting it. Damn you Budgerigar. That probably means I have to come back here. Hopefully they delist it soon, so I don't have to bother!
BIG YEAR LIST: 497
NEW YEAR BIRDS (7): Bachman's Sparrow, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Nanday Parakeet, Eastern Bluebird.