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Birding at the refuge

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By DON MORROW
Special to The News
 
I got down to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, Aug. 16 just before 6 a.m. I spent a little time walking along Lighthouse Road at the Double Bridges and near the Double Dikes. There was a full moon, but a high fog and mixed clouds obscured it.
Every now and then a thunderhead hidden in the murky sky in the southeast would light up and send out rumbling thunder.
I picked up a few calling birds; King Rail, Least Bittern and Green Heron. With a scope propped on my shoulder, I walked out to the end of the Double Dikes to wait for first light. I could hear the whistle of a Black-bellied Plover out on the Stony Bayou mudflats.
I set up my scope and waited. This is August in Florida. It’s already in the high 70s and steamy. A Common Nighthawk flew by and I started noticing bats. Scanning the horizon with binoculars, I saw movement, switched to the scope and picked up a flock of eight Blue-winged Teal, the first of the season.
With the nesting season over for Wilson’s Plover and Least Tern, refuge staff have begun to flood Stony Bayou I to manage vegetation. They’ll drop Tower Pond to provide habitat for winter shorebirds. There was a flight of seven Black Skimmers cruising the watery surface of Stony Bayou. The light was getting better and I started walking down the dike toward Lighthouse Road. A pair of Chimney Swifts flew by and a few Barn Swallows began to fly through. Our summer resident Barn Swallows have all left. Everything you see now is a migrant.
As more swallows flew by, I picked up a few Cliff and Tree Swallows and a Purple Martin.
There are still mudflats along the edge of Stony Bayou I. Shorebirds were light, but I found Black-bellied, Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plover, Least, Western and Pectoral Sandpiper, Willet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and a lone Marbled Godwit. Further out in the water, two Reddish Egrets were hunting. A Roseate Spoonbill flew in to join them.
About halfway to the road a small bird flew out of the low vegetation along the dike. I followed it with binoculars and saw it land on a sawgrass stem. About 40 feet away. This is when lugging a 60X spotting scope pays off. It was a female Dickcissel, an open-country bird from the middle of the continent that we see occasionally on migration. They usually don’t show up until October. As I got back to my car, I saw several Yellow Warblers in the willow thicket across the road.
I finished up my morning with a drive down to the Lighthouse. There were five Black Terns on Picnic Pond and Roseate Spoonbills in scattered spots along the road. The marsh at the Lighthouse was quiet with the exception of calling Clapper Rails. There were Forster’s Terns and a single immature Royal Tern. Among the Barn Swallows coming in off Apalachee Bay I had three Bank Swallows. As I started to drive back, I stopped to look at an Osprey in a tree and saw several distant birds high in the air. It was two Bald Eagles flying below a fish-carrying Osprey. I’m sure that things didn’t go well for the Osprey.
It was a good late Summer morning at St. Marks NWR. The Dickcissel is early, but otherwise Fall migration is unfolding in its normal pattern.