A bunch of us SW Floridians went up to do the Zellwood count again this year. This is the 6th year I've participated in the count and as always, I had an awesome time! This place is world class birding! There's no other way to describe the joint. At 6:00 AM Austin, Charlie Ewell, Arlyne Salcedo, and I met up with our compadres Terry Doyle and Doug Suitor (fresh in from the Naples Count the day before) and the team was in place. We would have to wait a while longer for our fearless leader so Lee Snyder entertained the troops by whistling in an Eastern Screech Owl. 

Once we'd gotten our packet and our directives though, we were off. Joining us and raising the bar on the talent meter, were David LaPuma and local wonderkid Alex (?Sorry Alex, we never stopped long enough to write down your last name). Stop one, was Lust Road!! It was already light enough to see as we drove out and we had a Great Horned Owl sail across the road in front of us as we headed out. It was well lit by the time we reached the Lust Road gate, and the Harriers and Kestrels were already bouncing around the fields. I couldn't help but flash back to last winter's Eurasian visitor, as we passed each Kestrel. The same thought flashed through my head.... "I wonder?!?..."

We'd made it to the end of the first field when we had our first stroke of luck. A larger bird had skulked into the dog fennel, trying its best to avoid detection. Unfortunately, though it was a sucker for a whistled Screech Owl imitation. Up popped an Ash-throated Flycatcher!.... Each of the last 4 years we have found these skulky denizens of the fennel, and it was now almost anticlimactic. As we worked our way towards the pump house we would add other birds as well: 4 White-crowned Sparrows and a White-throated, mixed with the more numerous Savannahs, then an Orange-crowned Warbler. All along the way phoebes were prevalant. 

At the pumphouse we began adding birds rapid fire. Two adult Bald Eagles sat on the pumphouse and the nearby pole, along with Red-taileds, and Red-shouldereds. The Tropical Kingbird was here and it was vocalizing to boot. It came quite close at times and we have some kicking photos to prove it. In the midst of the morning bird activity, birds were popping all around the pumphouse. Six Painted Buntings (1 with red), and 2 Brown Indigo Buntings were tallied, and the 2 Blue Grosbeaks here were brown as well. I don't really remember which came next but there was Field Sparrow, and Dickcissel, another Ash-throated Flycatcher, and a Yellow-breasted Chat in the melee of birds. 

Before we knew it, half the morning was gone (or better) and we'd only covered one short section of road. In a massive three block area that stretched from the Laughlin gate to Hooper Road and beyond. As before we still didn't have near enough help. We worked our way back towards lunch adding a bird here, bird there, but nothing like what we had encountered at the Pumphouse in the cooler dawn. We decided we needed to make tracks and began criss-crossing toward the Laughlin Gate. Bird species fell one at a time: Sora, Cardinal, Downy woodpecker, Loggerhead Shrike, Cooper's & Sharp-shinned Hawks, Wilson's Snipe, Marsh Wrens, and always the tease of that slightly different looking sparrow just dropping out of sight into the taller vegetation just ahead.

By lunch we had ammassed a pretty nice assortment of birds; some 83 species and counting. After fuelling up on Pizza and meatballs we headed back down toward the Laughlin gate and checked the sparrow field here. As typical the place was hopping with sparrows and they were lifting out ahead of us en masse. Savannah, Savannah, Savannah..... Ooops something different! A bird weakly lifted out and plunked straight back down in to the vegetation, after a weak short flight of only 12 feet or so. We all gathered round and before long were all looking at a Grasshopper Sparrow, mousing through the weedy field ahead of us. Then another. "Whoops, a couple Vespers over here!....." There were easily a couple hundred Sparrows in the first corner of the field and many had slipped through our sweeping net into the next field.

So we decided to reorganize our line.... We'd spread out and sweep back across the field in an organized fashion, right?!?.... Good plan, right?!?!.... Of course the birds didn't hear the plan. Another different looking bird popped up and made a short flight in front of me. "Hold up we need to see this one!" Our loosely formed line now became another amorphous blob around one small patch of weeds. The bird popped up again and disappeared into the hedge 15 feet away. It was slight, and lighter in color than the more numerous Savannahs, with a comparitively longer-tailed feel (to my mind). The mental database registered a similar image from a few years back, and I thought, "That reminds me of the way a Le Conte's looks..." "Do you really think so?", one of the crew replied.... (Oops I really need to stop that thinking aloud, stuff)

After a bit of pishing a Savannah popped straight up right where the bird had gone out of sight. I was half way through my apology (Sorry gang it looked real different to me....) When Terry exclaimed, "No it's there". Another sucker for the Screech Owl, a beautiful Le Conte's Sparrow was teed up as nice as one could ever hope to see within about 12' of us, sitting motionless on a small bare shrub!!! After a long pause for appreciation it dawned on me, "Hell, I've got a camera slung over my shoulder!" By the 16th frame, I'd gotten my act together and had fill flash working, and was probably within 10'.... Unfortunately, I don't make the jump to digital until Friday, so you will all have to wait for the film to be developed, to see some beautiful Le Conte's Sparrow shots.

After high fives were shared all around we tried the line thing again, but there was a huge number of birds toward the one corner and we became a blob again. No matter, it seemed to be working. Amidst the hoardes of Sparrows was another Blue Grosbeak. We had found the Vesper motherlode here and it seemed they were as common as the Savannahs at times. One amazing thing to observe was the huge range of variation in the hundreds of Savannahs here. Before long wonderkid, struck again.... 'Here's something different!'... Wahoo! Clay-colored Sparrow. Another strike!

A quick call to Wes, to tell him of the Sparrow Fest was well timed. He was just a couple miles away looking at a flock of Snow (and Blue) Geese. (Road trip!). Upon returning things had changed considerably, and the footcandle level was distinctly lower. It was probably near 3:30 under cloudy skies. We had to get going down Laughlin. In one field, we had two different subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. An adult "Krider's" Red-tailed Hawk was here along with a rufous morph B.j. calarus, and 2 more typical looking eastern Red-taileds. Neat, but light was fading and we had two more missions: double check the pumphouse and get to the Kingbird roost.

At the pumphouse an adult Purple Gallinule would slink back into the weeds, and the 2 stars of the show were battling on the wires. The Tropical and Gray Kingbird were on the wires here jockeying for position. Where else but Zellwood could you see two winter rarities sparring??... (and only days away from January). One of the other counters had the same thought as us and was hoping to get lucky with the Dickcissel when we arrived. In short order, Mr. Doyle struck avian gold again and the Dickcissel popped back out. We needed to make tracks now to get back out to the roost. By the time we arrived, the birds were all up on the back wires with American Robins. There were at least 35 Western Kingbirds lined up here with 5 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers mixed in. We were admiring these all when Terry spoke again, "I've got the Cassin's!" (When your hot your hot). A few of us got on the bird across the field on the far wire and were trying to give directions when the bird flew out toward the orchard. There was a moment of nervous apprehension as it was dark, would it stop?!?.... Of course it did, on the nearest section of wires and in the low light the pale tail tip was very obvious. A great way to end the evening!

The final tally (by my count) for our group was 97 species (8 in other areas) and we all reflected over the events of the day. 12 Species of sparrow (including Dickcissel and Towhee, Field, Song, Swamp, Le Conte's, Grasshopper, Savannah, Vesper, White-throated, White-crowned, & Clay-colored), and 7 species of Flycatcher .... Four of these Kingbirds (Western, Tropical, Cassin's, and Gray Kingbirds, Scissor-tailed Fly, Ash-throted Fly, and Eastern Phoebe) and we were almost to January. This is absolutely mind numbing!!!!!!! What a great day.... I LOVE ZELLWOOD! 

Life is good! The celebratory libation would follow.


Jeff Bouton
Port Charlotte, FL
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PS - There were undoubtedly many birds out there left undiscovered  as we barely scratched the surface of our areas. May I suggest that all of those who aren't getting involved in this count and who love birding, to make a note to self..... "Next year I do Zellwood!" 

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