Most people are totally unaware that a wonderful secret is hidden behind the ball park on State Road 776 in Port Charlotte. Venice Area Birding Association member Rhea Guerton recently led a memorable trip to Tippecanoe Environmental Park. The weather was perfect for a trip to this 380-acre site behind the stadium.
As we drove in, we sighted several mottled ducks and a red-winged blackbird. A small flock of white ibis was foraging in the muck along the shore of the pond, and an anhinga was basking in the early morning sun.
We parked and greeted everyone. Rhea told us her scope was already focused on a nesting great horned owl. It seems that the owl had confiscated an old osprey nest for its own use. After scoping the area out, we found another nest with an osprey, probably sitting on eggs. We heard the constant cooing of the mourning doves, which lasted throughout the entire morning.
Huge numbers of boat-tailed grackles were foraging in the grass and also around the pond. A mockingbird flew in and perched on a sign and just stared at us. We had nine species on the checklist, and we hadn’t even started our hike.
I was surprised to see such a small group gathered, as I was expecting a gaggle of VABA members. Many people canceled due to various reasons. It’s sometimes easier to spot birds with a big group, since there are more eyes — but a small group makes less noise, allowing us to locate species that might flee from a boisterous crowd.
We left the busy birdy parking area and started our hike. We approached the pond and we were happy to sight a great blue heron, a little blue heron, a great egret and a tri-colored heron.
A gray catbird flew across the trail right in front of us and disappeared into the low brush of scrubby oaks. We also were serenaded by a Carolina wren. Many myrtle warblers were spotted flitting through the treetops, along with a few blue-gray gnatcatchers. Several northern cardinals, both male and female, were sighted in the brush.
The day was getting warm, but fortunately we had a delightful breeze to keep us cool. A red-bellied woodpecker was rapping on a tree and then scurried up the trunk. We heard the “weet, weet” call of a great crested flycatcher. Overhead, a kettle of black vultures circled with the wind currents.
After hiking for about an hour, we came upon an area where Rhea told us she had sighted Florida scrub jays. All birders are always thrilled to see the threatened Florida scrub jays. Their habitat is being devoured by development. The scrub jay communities are dwindling, like many other species losing their habitat.
The Florida scrub jay is the only species of bird endemic to the state of Florida (endemic means it lives nowhere else). It is also one of 15 species endemic to the mainland of the United States. Birders travel to Florida from all over the world to see our wonderful scrub jays.
Sadly, over the past 50 years, the sandy scrub habitat has greatly diminished. Dry sandy uplands are much in demand for building home developments. The scrub jay population has declined about 90 percent in the past 25 or so years. This is a very sad situation to many people. The FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have listed it as a threatened species.
For many years, a friend and I monitored scrub jays at South Venice Lemon Bay Park. There were four or five jay families there at that time. I moved on a few years back to do surveys at Wildflower Preserve. I have heard that the families are now gone from SVLBP. This information is quite distressing.
Perhaps the beautiful and friendly scrub jays knew we were all excited to see them. First one appeared, than slowly but surely another came and then another. We were soon surrounded by beautiful happy scrub jays. We thought this was a family of five. Rhea and I could barely keep count as they fluttered from bush to shrub to ground and back to bush.
Of course, those of us with cameras were very busy. Tina even got fabulous photos with her cellphone — that is how close they came to us. The scrub jay family greeted us in southern style and we were thrilled. Scrub jays bury their food, which is mostly acorns. It is stored in the sand which is like our pantry. They did not offer us any acorns, and we didn’t offer them any food either.
Right in the middle of this amazing flurry, Diane spotted a pair of ground doves preening and cooing on a nearby branch. This also was a special treat for us to view. Ground doves earned their name, because most of the time we see them on the ground. These cute little birds are about 6 inches in length — half the size of the far more common mourning doves. If you are close enough or have a good pair of binoculars, you can see the bit of pink on the back of their beak.
We spent a lot of time with our new friends, the Tippecanoe Florida scrub jays. This was the first opportunity we had in quite a few years to see the any scrub jays up close and personal for such a long time. This also was the first time Tina and Richard, our new birders, had ever seen scrub jays. We actually had to tear ourselves away when it was time to move on. This was quite a memorable happening for our little group.
Onward we hiked. We went back to the pond to see if we could locate the mottled ducks so everyone could see them. Fortunately, we did locate them, and also picked up a wood stork and greater yellowlegs for our list. The mother great horned owl was still there, hunkered down on her nest.
Thank you to Rhea for leading this trip to Tippecanoe. We had an exciting and truly memorable day.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.