Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Birding Florida...with a baby

I've been really enjoying my seasonal hiatus as it has allowed me to be off for the last two months with Erica and Abby and it has been a great experience to see us all grow. Even more fun was the fact that we just got back from two weeks in Florida; a very welcome break from the middle of winter in Ontario!

We flew to Orlando on January 23 and stayed with Erica's parents at their rental in Celebration. Erica's sister and her family also met us down there so it was some great family time on top of the birding. We spent just over two weeks and covered lots of ground so here comes the trip report!

We arrived late on the 23rd and picked up our rental car and headed for Tropical Palms which would be our home for the next two weeks. Abby did great on the plane! The next morning I was up before the sun and so was Abby so her and I went for a walk. Nothing exceptional, but it sure was nice to be birding a different place!
Tricolored Heron at Tropical Palms
We spent the rest of the day with some Disney stuff then relaxing at the resort in the pool. The next day was one of our big driving days, heading for a hotel in Florida City. On the way I had a few stops planned with the hope of picking up some lifers and just plain-old fun birds.

Before we even got to our first spot we picked up our first Short-tailed Hawk of the trip, right near Yeehaw Junction. After about three hours of driving we entered West Palm Beach and headed for our first stop; Snook Islands. This is part of an area that has been rehabilitated and there were some American Oystercatchers regularly seen...sure enough, soon after we got out of the car we found our birds and 16 other species, my first lifer of the trip!

American Oystercatchers at Snook Islands
Abby and I looking at oystercatchers!
Brown Pelican

From there we headed for the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is nearly 150,000 acres (almost 600 square kilometres) and includes an absolutely massive marsh. We of course walked the Marsh Trail picking up a fine assortment of wading birds including my second lifer of the trip (and day!) - Limpkin (I somehow managed to miss this species on my 2009 trip to Florida...we would see well over 30 on this trip!).
Florida Softshell Turtle

White Peacock
Little Blue Heron


Our final stop for the day was just around the corner; the Green Cay Wetlands. This is a city park in Palm Beach county and we were totally blown away; the visitor centre is very nice but the boardwalk is amazing, spanning over 1.5 miles through great wetland habitat. There were tons of birds here to be seen including my third lifer of the day, Gray-headed Swamphen (an established exotic...hard to get excited) and our first Painted Buntings of the trip. The close-up views of all thirty-odd species was definitely worth the walk.
Abby taking a turn with the Canon

Purple Gallinule; native

Gray-headed Swamphen; same genus, but exotic

Painted Buntings
The next morning I got up early and cheated a bit because I birded on my own. I headed out in the dark and drove some fields hoping for a Barn Owl (no luck) and then walked down the road by Lucky Hammock just outside of the Everglades. I walked the road south for about two kilometres before turning back. I picked up about 40 species including a couple rare in winter for Florida in Dickcissel and Blue Grosbeak. It was a productive walk but I dipped on Brown-crested Flycatcher but lucked into a Smooth-billed Ani.
Common Ground-Dove

Blue Grosbeak

Grasshopper Sparrow

Smooth-billed Ani
I headed back to the hotel and picked up Abby and Erica so we could head into Everglades National Park for a few hours. Before we left we stopped for gas and I stepped out of the car and got lifer #4; Common Myna (another established exotic).
Common Mynas
Before we got to the entrance to the park we spotted a kingbird on a telephone wire so we turned around and found a Western Kingbird with 12 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers!
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Once we got into the Everglades we headed straight for the end of the road; Flamingo. There we had lunch, picking up our only Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and best of all a few Manatees in the marina!
We were kind of rushing at this point because we were thinking of meeting Erica's family in Key West for dinner, so we headed out of the park and into the keys. The drive was fairly slow with lots of traffic, but I did see a quick glimpse of a White-crowned Pigeon zipping across the road in Key Largo.

We spent the next two nights on Big Pine Key and explored a bit of that key, No Name Key, and Key West. We didn't do a ton of birding but I added species like American Redstart, Ovenbird, and best of all, Red Junglefowl (:))....we did do a nice walk at the Key West Botanical Gardens where I had great looks at at a White-crowned Pigeon
Erica and Abby at Key West Botanical Gardens 
Brown Anole

White-crowned Pigeon

Green Anole
After the keys, it was back to the Florida City/Homestead area for another night, but before we checked in we headed back into the Everglades for the afternoon. We took a leisurely stroll through the Long Pine Key campground where we picked up my lifer Brown-headed Nuthatch.
Brown-headed Nuthatch habitat
Following this, we headed for the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm. This was more what I expected the Everglades to look like, with the trail consisting of a boardwalk through a wetland. Our walk was most enjoyable as the trail lived up to its name with several Anhingas on nests, plus nice looks at Alligators.
Female Anhinga on nest with young

male Anhinga

As it got dark, clouds began to roll in as a cold front was approaching. Nevertheless, I got up early the next morning to try a spot for Mangrove Cuckoo (Black Point Park). Well, it was cold (10 degrees C, and pouring rain), so I didn't find it but it was still a fairly enjoyable walk. The one upside to the weather was I had the park to myself as all the natives were bundled up by their fireplaces!.

After I got back to the hotel we packed up and headed north with a quick stop at Castellow Hammock Park. Our target was a Buff-bellied Hummingbird that had staked out the park's butterfly garden for the winter. It was still pouring rain and things didn't look good, but just as we were about to leave the rain lightened up just a bit and the garden came to life; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds started chattering, and a Rufous Hummingbird joined in. A Yellow-breasted Chat popped up. And finally, the Buff-bellied made his presence known! We got some shots and enjoyed the hummingbirds before continuing on. Here's our list.
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
From there we made the drive back to Celebration, where we would spend the rest of the trip.

We spent the next couple of days fairly close to home so I took the opportunity to photograph a few common species:

I especially like how the Wood Stork photo shows that the black primaries are actually irridescent green!
Wood Stork

Tricolored Heron

Little Blue Heron
It wasn't long before we started getting antsy so we took some short trips. Our first was to the north end of Lake Tohopekaliga near downtown Kissimmee. We walked the trail along the lake and were treated to some interesting sightings, including great looks at several Limpkin and a Marsh Rabbit.
Close-up of a Limpkin's bill tip, showing the twisted end which is a specialization for its diet of Apple Snails. 
Marsh Rabbit

Our next trip was to Circle B Bar Reserve in neighbouring Polk County. This place came to our attention because of the reports of a huge alligator spotted a bit before we came to Florida, but it stayed on the radar because of the wading birds being reported there. We weren't dissappointed...this place was great; the visitor centre was excellent, the trails were extensive, and the birds were good too! We tallied over 50 species in our walk of about 2 hours. The highlight for me was FINALLY getting a Roseate Spoonbill.
Erica and Abby under the Live Oak/Spanish Moss canopy

Nine-banded Armadillo

Great Blue Heron catching some rays

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

Purple Gallinule

Roseate Spoonbill
Next up was another relatively new birding area; the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. The wildlife drive is just a small part of the Lake Apopka North Shore; a massive rehabilitation project converting farm land back into its natural state. The wildlife drive is 11 miles long and follows drainage ditches/dikes. There's even an audio tour to go along with it. We dipped on Ash-throated Flycatcher at the entrance, but were plenty entertained with over 60 species including my lifer Fulvous Whistling-Duck and our biggest 'gator of the trip.
real Mottled Ducks

big ol 'gator. We estimated it around 10-12 feet.

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks

Glossy Ibis
The next morning I found myself wide awake at 5 am so figured I might as well get up and go birding! So I headed south of Kissimee towards the Three Lakes WMA to try for a few specialty birds. My first stop was to drive some farm fields in the dark, hoping I might come across a Barn Owl (nope!). Then I headed for the WMA...my goal was to be there just as it was getting light so I might get to hear a Bachman's Sparrow singing or find a Red-cockaded Woodpecker emerging from a nest hole. Well, before I even fully stopped my car I had my first Bachman's Sparrow singing! I drove on a bit further and parked the car and could hear three more counter-singing! With that I walked the road looking for Longleaf Pines that had a key field mark for finding the woodpeckers - white spray-painted rings on the trunk....sure enough, after staking out such a tree for a few minutes I watched one bird emerge and start calling to another! Succcess :)
Bachman's Sparrow habitat

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

The nest hole it came out of

When looking for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the best field mark is the white ring on the tree :)
Having got my target birds so quickly, I made a "bonus" drive up Joe Overstreet Road finding lots of open country birds. I recorded one meadowlark (in my eBird checklist) that I assume is a funny-sounding Eastern, but I'd love some thoughts on it!

I was back by mid-morning so we went out to lunch in St. Cloud with Erica's parents. The chosen restaurant just happened to be one of the better places in the area to find Snail Kites, and we hadn't even stopped the car before we spotted our first of five. Snail Kites, like Limpkins, make their living off of the huge Apple Snails.
Snail Kite

check out that bill!
The resident subspecies of Sandhill Cranes in Florida (pratensis) is amazingly tame. Which is great if you want full frame photos of their head. While photographing the above Snail Kite, this crane just screamed to have its photo taken.
Sandhill Crane
Our final birding trip was a day trip to the Atlantic coast just south of Cape Canaveral. We headed straight for the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary to try for Florida Scrub-Jay. It was tense for about five minutes when we found our first, then second, and finally they started jumping out of the scrub at us. We had at least ten individuals in the 45 minutes we were there.
Florida Scrub-Jay
From there we headed for the Viera Wetlands. Ontario birders would probably consider this spot a sewage lagoon on steroids. There were many cells and you could drive your vehicle around them. It made for great birding and we definitely weren't the only people enjoying them!. In just under an hour we had over 50 species. Basically, this was a mini version of the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.

Our next stop was the parking lot of Moccasin Island in the River Lakes Conservation Area where an Ash-throated Flycatcher was wintering for something like the fifth winter in a row. Much of the area was fenced off so there were only so many places we could look. At one point I thought I heard the bird give a call note, but then nothing for many minutes. Then finally it began calling long enough for me to locate it in a Brazilian Pepper tree.
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Our final stop was Cocoa Beach, where we spent some time soaking in some sun (and counting birds). Gannets plunged off shore, several shorebird species ran along the beach, and a few small flocks of Black Skimmers flew by...a nice end to a great day.

And with that, we were down to our last day in Florida. We got in some pool time, and enjoyed the resort a little more before making our way back to snowy, icy, Ontario.
Abby getting the last of the Florida sun

White Ibis

Black Vulture

Red-shouldered Hawk
Bird species list:

  1. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  2. Fulvous Whistling-Duck
  3. Mute Swan
  4. Muscovy Duck
  5. American Wigeon
  6. Mallard
  7. Mottled Duck
  8. Blue-winged Teal
  9. Northern Shoveler
  10. Green-winged Teal
  11. Redhead
  12. Ring-necked Duck
  13. Lesser Scaup
  14. Hooded Merganser
  15. Ruddy Duck
  16. Red Junglefowl
  17. Wild Turkey
  18. Pied-billed Grebe
  19. Wood Stork
  20. Magnificent Frigatebird
  21. Northern Gannet
  22. Double-crested Cormorant
  23. Anhinga
  24. American White Pelican
  25. Brown Pelican
  26. American Bittern
  27. Great Blue Heron
  28. Great Egret
  29. Snowy Egret
  30. Little Blue Heron
  31. Tricolored Heron
  32. Cattle Egret
  33. Green Heron
  34. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  35. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  36. White Ibis
  37. Glossy Ibis
  38. Roseate Spoonbill
  39. Black Vulture
  40. Turkey Vulture
  41. Osprey
  42. Snail Kite
  43. Northern Harrier
  44. Cooper's Hawk
  45. Bald Eagle
  46. Red-shouldered Hawk
  47. Broad-winged Hawk
  48. Short-tailed Hawk
  49. Red-tailed Hawk
  50. King Rail
  51. Virginia Rail
  52. Sora
  53. Purple Gallinule
  54. Gray-headed Swamphen
  55. Common Gallinule
  56. American Coot
  57. Limpkin
  58. Sandhill Crane
  59. American Oystercatcher
  60. Black-bellied Plover
  61. Killdeer
  62. Ruddy Turnstone
  63. Sanderling
  64. Dunlin
  65. Western Sandpiper
  66. Long-billed Dowitcher
  67. Wilson's Snipe
  68. Greater Yellowlegs
  69. Willet
  70. Lesser Yellowlegs
  71. Laughing Gull
  72. Ring-billed Gull
  73. Herring Gull
  74. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  75. Great Black-backed Gull
  76. Caspian Tern
  77. Forster's Tern
  78. Royal Tern
  79. Black Skimmer
  80. Rock Pigeon
  81. White-crowned Pigeon
  82. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  83. Common Ground-Dove
  84. White-winged Dove
  85. Mourning Dove
  86. Smooth-billed Ani
  87. Barred Owl
  88. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  89. Rufous Hummingbird
  90. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  91. Belted Kingfisher
  92. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  93. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  94. Downy Woodpecker
  95. Hairy Woodpecker
  96. Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  97. Northern Flicker
  98. Pileated Woodpecker
  99. Crested Caracara
  100. American Kestrel
  101. Merlin
  102. Peregrine Falcon
  103. Monk Parakeet
  104. Eastern Phoebe
  105. Ash-throated Flycatcher
  106. Great Crested Flycatcher
  107. Western Kingbird
  108. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  109. Loggerhead Shrike
  110. White-eyed Vireo
  111. Blue-headed Vireo
  112. Blue Jay
  113. Florida Scrub-Jay
  114. American Crow
  115. Fish Crow
  116. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  117. Purple Martin
  118. Tree Swallow
  119. Tufted Titmouse
  120. Brown-headed Nuthatch
  121. House Wren
  122. Marsh Wren
  123. Carolina Wren
  124. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  125. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  126. Eastern Bluebird
  127. American Robin
  128. Gray Catbird
  129. Brown Thrasher
  130. Northern Mockingbird
  131. European Starling
  132. Common Myna
  133. Cedar Waxwing
  134. Ovenbird
  135. Northern Waterthrush
  136. Black-and-white Warbler
  137. Common Yellowthroat
  138. American Redstart
  139. Northern Parula
  140. Palm Warbler
  141. Pine Warbler
  142. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  143. Yellow-throated Warbler
  144. Prairie Warbler
  145. Yellow-breasted Chat
  146. Bachman's Sparrow
  147. Grasshopper Sparrow
  148. Chipping Sparrow
  149. Savannah Sparrow
  150. Song Sparrow
  151. Swamp Sparrow
  152. Eastern Towhee
  153. Northern Cardinal
  154. Blue Grosbeak
  155. Indigo Bunting
  156. Painted Bunting
  157. Dickcissel
  158. Red-winged Blackbird
  159. Eastern Meadowlark
  160. Common Grackle
  161. Boat-tailed Grackle
  162. Brown-headed Cowbird
  163. House Finch
  164. American Goldfinch
  165. House Sparrow