Getting Back Out There!

February was a busy month.  With a lot going on at my job and at home I didn’t have time to get out into nature, but this weekend I finally had a chance.  I was rewarded with two new species for my life list and three for my year list. I watched my first Snail Kite skimming over the river of sawgrass in the Chekika area of the Everglades.  Later I saw my first Painted Bunting at Castellow Hammock Park in South Miami-Dade County.  She was a beautiful yellow-green.  I also watched some White-winged doves cautiously enjoying a meal at one of the bird feeders at Castellow.  These were a first for 2011. All in all it was a rather light birding day.  I noticed that Lake Chekika was a lot dryer than it was during my previous visits, and am wondering if the South Florida birding season is  beginning to wind down.  Nevertheless I saw some new birds and was able to get some shots of species I hadn’t been able to photograph in the past.

European Starling peeking out from the birdhouse he has claimed for himself.

White-winged Dove perched on a bird feeder eying me cautiously.  Notice the bright blue eye-ring.

Belted Kingfisher – one of my favorites.  I finally got one to sit still enough for a photo.

Female Painted Bunting with seed.
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Castellow Hammock Park

Castellow Hammock Park
Castellow Hammock Park is located in Southwest Miami-Dade County, Florida just five minutes away from the densely populated Town of Cutler Bay. It is one of Miami-Dade County’s six ECO-Adventures Nature Centers and it was my second stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  I grew up in the Cutler Bay area and have lived in South Florida for more than thirty years, and I did not know about Castellow Hammock until the day before my visit.  I found it on the Great Florida Birding Trail website when searching for a birding hot spot near my home.
Park Entrance

The park entrance features a few bird feeders placed on high stilts that seemed to be empty on that particular October afternoon.  Clusters of flowering shrubs and trees dotted the grounds that attract a variety of butterflies and humming birds.  The facility includes a nature center that was staffed by a ranger-type girl, who was just closing up as I arrived.  Even though she was leaving, she said it was alright for me to explore the park as long as I parked outside the gate, which she would be locking up shortly.  The park’s main feature is the nature trail, which begins behind the nature center building.  I was surprised to see that it was really nothing more than a narrow path carved into a thicket of banyan trees, live oak and thick under growth.

Fallen Tree

The vegetation surrounding the trail was thick enough to create a canopy that filtered out a lot of the sunlight, and once I was several steps inside I felt as if I had entered into another world.  The rocks were all covered with moss and I could almost taste the dampness of this new ecosystem that was nothing like the one I had just stepped out of.  The sound of the wind brushing through the leaves of the tree tops was soothing and reminded me of an Amerindian rain stick.  I could hear many different birds singing and calling and at first I couldn’t see any of them. I was sure they all could see me.  In fact, I suspected, I was possibly the subject of their conversations.

Tiny Gorge

The trail wound approximately half a mile back into the thicket and I was grateful for the numbered posts that were left every fifty feet.  Without them I may not have been able to exit the trail as easily as I had entered it.  There were several fallen trees that were slowly decomposing, now sustaining their habitat now in a different way than they had in the past.  About half way in to the trail I found a very small gorge cut into the rock.  The basin was about ten feet below where I stood and was filled with water.  I was impressed by the  roots of the surrounding trees traveling down the steep edges to drink from the water below.  I stopped for a few minutes, hoping see a bird or some other  form of wildlife there, but it was unoccupied at that moment.  I was beginning to think that I would see nothing but trees and plant life.

Looking but not seeing…

While on the trail my inexperience as a birder was apparent.  The first time I raised my camera  to snap a picture I realized that I had forgotten to check the battery.  It was completely dead.  I would have to rely on my cell phone  for pictures.  It probably didn’t matter much, because I really need much better equipment to photgoraph the little birds I was looking for.  Small birds are fast and skittish; they won’t let you get close.   I realized then why most birders rely on some type of optical aid such as a spotting scope or binoculars just to see the see birds, let alone photograph them.  Another thing that became painfully apparent was my lack of knowledge of birds.  I was hearing many different bird calls and songs, but had no clue as to what they were.  When I would catch the occasional glimpse of a bird, most of the time I had no clue as to what kind it was.  I had been thrilled to see the hummingbirds at the park entrance, but dismayed to find out later that there are too many different species of hummingbird for me to come close to identifying what I had seen.   Birding is going to take a lot of practice and I probably need to pick up a pocket field guide to help identify birds on the spot.

One thing I did learn from this little outing is to slow down.  When I first entered the trail, I wanted to covered a lot of ground so I moved quickly and probably made a lot of noise.  I could hear many different birds but didn’t see a thing.   But once I got about as deep into the thicket as I could go I decided to stop and listen.  I was still and patience.  A few minutes I was able to distinguish, the direction the different chirps were coming from.  If I concentrated I could estimate how close or far away they were.  I heard the tree branches off to my right move and when I shifted my gaze I was thrilled to see a bright red Northern Cardinal perched on a branch not more than ten feet away.  Then he was gone before I could even think to try to snap his picture with my cell phone.  A few minutes later I spotted a bright orange female and I enjoyed listening to the two of them singing their songs of courtship.

Then another sign of my inexperience showed up in the form of mosquitoes.  I hadn’t even thought about putting on repellent.  I knew from past experience hiking and camping that now that they had found me they wouldn’t be leaving me alone, so I began making my way out of the trail.  Once I reached that nature center, I decided to sit for awhile on one of the benches outside.  I enjoyed hearing many different songbirds.  I caught a glimpse of the occasional flutter of wings, but was really able to identify anything else, except for the White-winged doves that were fly from treetop to treetop.
I have been told that in a month or so there will be many more migrating birds in South Florida, so I may return to Castellow Hammock again in the next few weeks or maybe I will try another stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  One thing is for sure; I will be out there enjoying nature and learning more about birding.

Until Next Time,

The Inexperienced Birder

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