Article and Photos By Michael Brower

Always, when late March is upon Cathy and me, we start looking forward to birding with our friends from Francis M. Weston Audubon Society at our familiar Spring Migration “hot spots” including Ft. Pickens, Ft. Morgan, and Dauphin Island with side-trips to Santa Rosa Unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore to check out the migrant sea and shorebirds including our soon and now nesting Least Terns, Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers and perhaps a chance to see visiting…but not nesting…Piping Plovers at the Big Sabine. 


We had always counted on the several habitats of Soundside Foundation Preserve’s 55-acres and miles of trails as good “back-up” places to observe migrants; but this Spring, as it evolved, Soundside Foundation Preserve was our only Spring Migration “hot spot.”

Soundside Foundation Preserve based on our closer, extended daily hours of birding did not disappoint.

Perhaps the most exciting early March event was the arrival of a Great Horned Owl pair in an abandoned Osprey nest in a towering pine on the shore of Santa Rosa Sound.

We would be tracking this nesting throughout the migration along with a nesting pair of Cooper’s Hawks.


From March 22, 2020, until May 2, 2020, we submitted forty checklists after spending about four hours every morning (6:30-10:30 am) birding the Preserve.

These reports record 163 distinct species…including the all the “usual suspects,” and thousands of individual birds.

We also recorded some unique, uncommon and rare birds. We selected our birding hours to benefit sun-angle for photography and to effectively warm-up the worms and caterpillars in the live oaks for feeding migrant passerines.


Cloudy March improved to cool and blue April with clear and unlimited visibility.

We only got blown off the Preserve twice by stormy weather.

Three over-wintering Hermit Thrushes continued with regular sightings throughout March, each in its own territory.

As migration progressed, they left and were replaced by Gray-cheeked, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes on their way to breeding grounds.

March also heralded the return of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, our plentiful and colorful Northern Parulas, and our first-for-the-year, Protonotary Warblers.


These new arrivals were framed by flocks of hundreds and hundreds of Cedar Waxwings methodically feasting into early April on ripening Yaupon Holly berries.

In early April, we noticed something moving around in the nest next to the Great Horned Owl. Later, using the spotting scope, we detected a Great Horned owlet. 


By the 10th of April, we were seeing regular Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feeding in the Live Oaks, the return of the Preserve’s nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers and ever present “police-whistling” Great-crested Flycatchers, loads of Gray Catbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, three Blue-winged Warblers and our first of three Northern Waterthrushes for the season; but, in the next five days the species count started exploding. 

The way was led by a group of handsome breeding plumaged Swamp Sparrows…punk haircuts and all.

They would be regulars until the winds shifted in May, but the migration gave us hundreds of opportunities to observe transiting warblers, flycatchers and misguided water-fowl unseen during our repeated forays during 2020’s UWF Waterfowl Surveys.


There were high-branch singing Eastern Wood-Pewees and Acadian Flycatchers, Tennessee Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers.

For a time, our winter resident warblers, including Orange-crowned, Pine, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, overlapped with the migrant crowd! 

Actually, some of the breeding plumage Myrtle-variety Yellow-rumps challenged for the best plumage.

There were distinctive Black and Whites hopping up the trunks of trees and Hooded Warblers and Common Yellow-throats hiding and popping up from the edge thickets.


We were lucky enough to stumble across a single Wilson’s Warbler and a Black-throated Green Warbler and several bold Prairie Warblers.

The tempo of Prothonotary Warbler sightings increased too! Many of the vireos showed up too…White-eyed, Yellow-throated, and Red-eyed. 

By the last five days of April, we knew we had had a great migration already, but it was about to get better with two life-birds for Cathy, a bunch of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, some stunning Yellow Warblers, a six-day continuing pair of sojourning Mississippi Kites and a group of female American Redstarts.


The highlight of our “COVID-19 Pandemic” migration was clearly either the Wilson’s Phalarope found on April 25th or the two Bay-breasted Warblers…both life-birds for Cathy, or the Great Horned owlet we have been monitoring. 

I am…Cathy might disagree…opting for the Great Horned owlet, who, when around 6-8 weeks old, begin to venture from their nest.

This is called “walking around”  and “walking around” happens before they can actually fly. 


Under strict parental supervision, they start “foot” exploring their nest tree….

“Our” owlet did the first recorded walk on April 30th.

Sometime around “walking around” time the male takes over as the primary provider…and mom earns a break. 


Nature’s method provides opportunities for owlets to develop their leg muscles that will very soon be catching their own prey. 

In natural settings owlets that appear to have fallen from their nest actually have fledged.  

In natural wooded areas, bushes and smaller trees provide a ladder of sorts and allow the chicks to climb to a higher perch until they can fly.


When owls nest in a city with concrete below them rather than a soft forest floor, problems arise.

That is also the case with a well-manicured park or lawn setting that has nothing that can function as a ladder for the owlets. 


As to my favorite photo of this migration in the Soundside Foundation Preserve, I couldn’t have planned it other than we knew a group of migrant Gray Catbirds had been regularly hanging-out with voracious appetites in a berry bramble coincidentally ripening when they were visiting the Preserve…food and defense…who says birds aren’t smart?


Funny, I had just complained to Cathy that we were coming to three hours in a typical four or so hours bird walk without a day list record of a Gray Catbird, when we usually see 7-10 a day.

Approaching the bramble, we saw five Gray Catbirds darting around and then the pictured catbird was pure poetry and one of those rewarding moments that even common birds yield when you take the time to know the habitat.


Article and Photos By Michael Brower