Bird Watching at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

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A Story by Wakulla Native Donald Morrow

At St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, first light was at 7:06 this morning. I had already been birding for over an hour and was about three-quarters of a mile down Tram Road, listening to Barred and Great Horned Owls calling from the far side of a sawgrass marsh. Morning birds were starting; a pair of Carolina Wrens, the mewing of Catbirds from several directions and the harsh “chrr” call of a Brown Thrasher.

I had started the morning with several silent stops along Lighthouse Road to listen for owls. As I near seventy, I have become more comfortable being a silent lurker in the darkness, just listening. If you’re patient, this can be a productive means of finding birds.

At my third stop, I watched a bright meteor with a long blazing trail as it headed straight down into the horizon. This was immediately followed by a long hoot from a nearby Barred Owl. While I was wondering what the owl thought of the meteor, I heard the ululating trills of two Eastern Screech Owls. 

This was beginning to be some good night birding.

I stopped on Lighthouse Road closer to the Lighthouse and just across from the eagle’s nest. This is a good spot for Clapper Rails, and I soon had at least five calling from the salt marshes.

I headed back in, parked at the Double Dikes, and began to walk down the middle of Lighthouse Road, listening for King Rails. I heard three calling as the Eastern sky began to lighten.

I moved my car down to Tram Road and got out to begin my walk out past the Helispot. By this time, it was already 6:30 am. There’s a section of older pine forest on the west side of the road. Two Great Horned Owls were duetting somewhere in the pines. Owls are renewing their pair bonds prior to nesting and are very talkative just now.

Then, I spent half an hour walking out to the sawgrass marsh (a randomly picked goal of mine was to reach the sawgrass marsh by first light). After that, I birded the refuge until 11:00 am, but it was a hot October morning, and I decided to end my birding day early. Before I did, I saw a few more birds.

I had a morning flock of Common Grackles that I estimated at 1,500 birds. You hear them first. A low rumble of bird calls sounding like surf as they fly toward you. This time of year, they usually roost in the marshes near East River Pool and head out, en masse, in the morning to forage for the day in the pine woods to the North. Gray Catbirds continue to pass through and Pied-Billed Grebes are arriving in numbers. 

I had thirty-nine today. I also had my first House Wren and Palm Warbler of the season. The Palm Warbler was a single female of the Western subspecies.

After the strong predawn start, it was a calm morning of desultory birding at the refuge. Later in October, about half of our wintering duck species will show up, and the pace of birding will quicken, but for now, it’s enough to fill in the quiet spaces appreciating the fall wildflowers and the butterflies they attract.

Don Morrow

Tallahassee, FL