Saturday, February 8, 2014

Curing the Midwinter Birding Doldrums

Having just passed the midpoint of winter, halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox, but little else giving hope of an early spring arrival other than increasing day length, I'm passing the season enjoying birds visiting the feeders and checking out  the few nearby spots that offer some potential for interesting birdwatching. Unfortunately this is the winter birding doldrums. So, I am enjoying the comforting heat of the woodstove and am reminded of our getaway last February to northern Florida for a mini-family reunion in St. Augustine and some personal time to seek out a couple specialty birds.  This took me to Ocala National Forest in the north-central part of the state.  Covering over 380,000 acres, it is the most southern national forest in the continental United States and constitutes the world's largest remaining contiguous sand pine scrub ecosystem.
One of my quests was the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a keystone species of mature longleaf pine forests.  Luckily I succeeded in finding at least two by keeping a close watch on a clump of marked nesting trees observable from the road and listening for any vocalizations.
Female Red-cockaded Woodpecker at entrance
to nesting cavity.
Cluster of marked Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting trees in
longleaf pine forest, Ocala National Forest.
Next on my list was the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay.   Although a brief visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge located adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center produced one jay, the mother load was definitely the Big Scrub in Ocala National Forest.  The Big Scrub is a sand pine scrub ecosystem which makes up about 70% of the national forest.  It is a fire-dependent system that provides habitats for a high diversity of rare, threatened and endangered animal and plant species. It is accessible on foot via the Yearling Trail. 

A pair of Florida Scrub-Jays in the Big Scrub.
Banded Florida Scrub-Jay, Merritt Island National
Wildlife Refuge.
The Yearling Trail through the Big Scrub.  Note jays perched
at the top of each of the two right-hand tree snags.
"Yellow-eyed" Eastern Towhee, a common inhabitant of the
Big Scrub.  

This harmless Eastern Hognose Snake was encountered as it was crossing a forest road.  A nonvenomous species that resorts to a routine of bluff when threatened.  Its first move is give the illusion of being larger than it really is by inflating the body, spreading the head for a "hooded" effect, hissing and striking.  If that does ward of the intruder, well then roll over and play dead: mouth gaped open, tongue extended, cloaca inverted, and abdomen sunken.  One minor flaw with this ruse is that if it is turned right side up, the snake will roll over and play dead again.  Left alone and sensing danger has passed, it will right itself and continue on its way.   
Eastern Hognose Snake.
Same hognose snake convincingly playing "dead."

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