It was still pretty dark at 6:30 am as my Extremely Early Birding field trip stood waiting on the North levee of Stony Bayou II at St.. Marks NWR. As the field trip leader, I was just hoping that something would happen to justify nine people following me out to a random spot of my choosing. I’m always happy just enjoying daybreak. There’s something oddly satisfying with the slow inexorable process of morning. The stars fade away in a moonless sky; the horizon becomes lighter and then shifts through a carefully chosen palette of color. By the time the sun actually rises, it’s kind of anticlimactic.
However, this was a birding trip and, thus far, there were no birds. I was just thinking that maybe I should slip away in the night when a Least Bittern called. Before we moved on twenty minutes later, we had heard Black-crowned Night Heron, King Rail, Barred Owl, Belted Kingfisher and saw an American Bittern flying around.
Our two-car caravan moved down to a spot between a large cypress dome and a cattail marsh. We added Pileated Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk, a flock of thirty-five Blue-winged Teal and a bunch of Tree Swallows skimming the marsh tops. A modest number of Eastern Kingbirds started appearing from the cattails where they had roosted overnight.
We moved down to the Northeast corner on the far edge of the cypress dome, arriving just as the sun rose through the trees. You can usually find a dozen or so mixed-age Black-crowned Night Herons sitting in cypress trees. Today they came through for me. While we watched them, an Eastern Screech Owl started calling from the cypress dome. This was starting to be a decent birding trip.
We made the circuit around Stony Bayou, stopping occasionally. Two Caspian Terns flew by and a single Blue-winged Teal crossed our path. A pair of Ospreys flew around. Hurricane Matthew had deposited the remains of an old cedar tree on the levee. Its bare branches rise out of a thick yard-high growth of Hairy Indigo. Yellow Warblers were feeding down in the indigo and coming up to perch on the cedar branches. A female Prairie Warbler joined them. There may have been as many as five Yellow Warblers.
We turned on to the cross dike and found a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper perched on the edge of the old Least Tern nesting platform. A bit further down there was a roosting group of birds sitting in the shallow water. Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, and two Black-bellied Plovers, but mostly Willets and Greater Yellowlegs with two smaller Lesser Yellowlegs in the mix. A smaller shorebird flew in and landed in water that reached its belly. An odd behavior for a Least Sandpiper, a species that usually prefers mudbanks and avoids wading.
By this time, it was after 9:00 am, the heat of the day was settling in and it was time for me to end my last Extremely Early Birding field trip of the Summer. It was a nice late Summer morning at the refuge.
Don Morrow, Tallahassee, FL