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Christmas in Florida

Part 13:  Paynes Prairie State Park

(and the drive home)

For the last official birding day of the trip I visited Paynes Prairie Preserve SP, and enjoyed some lovely hikes; the first trail I tried was a little bit of the Chacala Trail, and even before I got out of the car a flock of Turkeys was poking around the clearing!  There were several little birds flipping about, and in the early light I had trouble picking them out, but most of them appeared to be Butterbutts, with a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Pine Warbler thrown in.  Something was making a racket that I didn't recognize at all, and upon approaching, just got a brief glimpse of a white square shooting away that had to be none other than a Red-headed Woodpecker!  Downies, Red-bellieds, and Flickers also called, and further in added Pileated.  The habitat in here contained a lot of Spanish-moss-draped oaks and other trees I couldn't identify, but there were some bogs here and there, too, and from one of them a female Wood Duck called.  On the way back a whole mob of Robins blocked the path!

                   

Chacala Trailhead and fuzzy female Turkey in the early morning light

Drove to the end of the road and did the little loop trail near the visitor's center, and even managed to make it up to the top of the tower!  It gave a great view of the wetlands, and in the distance were White Ibis, Great Egret, and a Bald Eagle.  A snipe gave its harsh call while I was up there, too, and then I managed to see it flying away.  On the loop back a Hermit Thrush came in to say hello as well as a Blue Jay, and something (probably me) got them all going; you woulda thought I was a dreaded snake or something!  Also heard a Bald Eagle that sounded like he was right on top of me; little did I know...

           

View from the tower and Hermit Thrush along the trail

Drove down to Wauberg Lake after that, taking a little of the Lake Trail, and what a sight!  It looked like there were some nice homes across the way, but there must have been at least a dozen Bald Eagles lined up over there (not to mention the ones cackling on my side); what a yard bird!  There were also tons of White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants, and the lady ranger pointed out a Green Heron to me in the marshy stuff.  A Great Egret joined the fishermen on the boardwalk...  Down the trail it was rather quiet but pretty, especially after it opened up, but you could still see the eagles soaring and squealing overhead; those voices really carry cuz they sounded close but they were way up there!  On the way back a White-eyed Vireo, Phoebe, and Carolina Wren came close to investigate.  Sat on a picnic table for five to watch the eagles, and this guy with a camera walks up and says, "Are there any eagles around here?" (as one flies by behind him...)  So after pointing them out I left him to do his photography, and headed back to the car for a PB&J Bagel.  A pretty boisterous-sounding Red-shouldered Hawk convinced me it was really him and not an enthusiastic Blue Jay (and saw a real one later, just in case...)

               

Birds at Lake Wauberg:  Green Heron, Cardinal, and one of many Bald Eagles

From there drove up US 441 to the Bolen Bluff Trail, and since it was around 11:00 I decided to do the whole loop.  Things were quieting down, but where the dike trail opens up into the prairie (which was under water) added coot and moorhen to the list, and another amorous pair of eagles overhead (junior came by as well with a not-as-developed cackle...).  On the way back stumbled upon a pair of the wild horses they have there, who gave me a look but that was about it. This was where the "real" Red-shouldered Hawk was, too...

                   

Flooded dike along the Bolen Bluff Trail with two of the wild horses that hang out in the park

Hit the road after that, planning on pretty much driving straight back.  Each day, though, I stopped at a state park to get an exercise walk in.  The first one I ended up at the next day was good ol’ Blackwater River in the Panhandle! The funny thing was that, aside from the guy who sold me my annual pass, I couldn’t remember a thing about the place! But once I got in it all came back, and I had a nice walk along the paved road and the campground.  The next day ended up stopping at at Palmetto State Park in Texas, which I know I’ve been to but I sure didn’t recognize it at all! (I probably went down the other road…) But it made for a great exercise walk, but it got me realizing that I’m right on the cusp of some things: I heard a Red-bellied-type woodpecker and assumed I was into Golden-fronted territory already, but according to the book, I was right on the border of both! The checklist implied that Red-bellied was much more likely, but the other thing that got my attention was a little typewriter-like ticking, and I was sure I had a Green Kingfisher! I left my bins in the car, of course (it was just an exercise walk, after all), and that, too, seemed to be right on the edge of its range. And to make matters worse, they evidently do occur year-round, but are extremely rare (the checklist’s definition was "seen sporadically, if at all")! So I sent out an SOS over Birdchat, just to find out if perchance any locals might have had one there recently, and the consensus was unanimous that that's indeed what I probably had: multiple Christmas Counts have had them there (or at least in the territory), and one person even suggested that the checklist was terribly outdated!

The exercise walk the next day ended up being at Balmorhea State Park, also in Texas (I’m hitting all these areas I’ve been to before!), and even though I had to make several trips around the campground to get a decent walk in, it still was a great place to do it: a cute little Rock Wren was inches away from me at the cienega, and picked up the Pyrrhuloxia on the way back to the car. It was nice seeing several old friends again, and even though the area is very deserty, I’m still feeling like this (i.e., the American West) is home now, and so long as the Lord provides the funds, I think I'll resist the temptation to move to Florida and stay in San Diego (or at least in California) for as long as I can!

The next day's "exercise stop" wound up in Rock Hound State Park in New Mexico, and again, it wound up just being a couple of hikes around the campground, but seeing as it was up on a grade I sure got my exercise!  Picked up several new trip (and year) birds such as Curve-billed Thrasher and Canyon Towhee.  Drove through the last of the monster storms San Diego was getting clobbered with the next day coming into the Laguna Mountains, but by the time I hit town the sun was out, so I made a quick stop at Lake Murray for the last official "exercise stop" of the trip, padding the trip list with some California goodies, including California Gnatcatcher (although I felt mildly guilty counting local things as "trip birds")!

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