Champions of the Flyway!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Florida, U.S.A - March 2010

As the London spring grinds and stutters in as frustratingly as ever and with holiday time to burn before the end of March, so to Florida for seven days of sun, quality family time, a mind-blowing avifauna and wonderful wildlife.

It's been a long time since the three of us - myself, the old man and brother Neil - took a trip together, and with us all being bird-obsessed to varying degrees, Florida was the perfect venue. Easy to get to, easy to deal with, pretty much new to us all (discounting a fly-drive 30 years ago), and with a diversity of birdlife and habitats that with anything less than a hurricane would surely not disappoint.

While remaining a stubborn advocate of bins-before-camera birding and viewing the DSLR as strictly a second fiddle to the Leica's, the abundance and often tameness of many of the birds encountered and the largely excellent light for photography encouraged plenty of shutter action; a fair percentage of the shots came out well enough to justify seperate family/species-themed posts, which follow.

We hooked up in Orlando after a 10-hour flight, and with a few hours daylight remaining, headed straight for Merritt Island on the 22nd. Neighbouring Cape Canaveral, Merritt is a bird-filled coastal wetland reserve of tidal creeks, shallow lagoons, scrub and saltmarsh, and because of raised tracks winding throughout the reserve, is easily (and indeed preferably) covered from the car; hence, crawling at snail's pace and stopping whenever required, this is birding at it's laziest.

Merritt Island

Overnight in Cocoa Beach and back at Merritt for first light, the highlights of both sessions included numerous exotic large waterbirds (herons, limpkins, egrets, ibises, storks, pelicans, anhingas) often at close range; a pair of King Rails swimming across a small pool; Caspian, Gull-billed, Forster's and Royal Terns; a flock of Black Scoters in the bay (the only seaducks of the trip); the misfitted marvels known as Black Skimmers; very approachable waders including Western and Least Sandpipers, American Avocets, Wilson's Plover, Willets, Wilson's Snipe, both Yellowlegs and dowitchers; a sprinkling of pristeen warblers including the uber-common Palm, plus Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula and a fine male Pine; plenty of Blue-winged Teal and Mottled Ducks, as well as our only Northern Shovelers of the week; and hatfuls of what rapidly became the commonest birds of prey of the trip - Turkey and Black Vultures, American Kestrels, Ospreys and Red-shouldered Hawks; and not forgetting the warm sunshine soon burning through a cool dawn.

After two very successful and enjoyable sessions at Merritt, we decided to gun south and then west through the afternoon of the 23rd, heading a couple of hundred miles towards the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. Our longest single journey of the trip incorporated various good birds en route, including Sandhill Cranes, Swallow-tailed Kites, more Loggerhead Shrikes, a pair of White-winged Doves and ubiquitous herons, ibises, egrets and storks.

We arrived at our next site, Everglades Agricultural Area, for around five, and therefore still had a good couple of hours' light remaining. The EAA is an extraordinary, vast expanse of prairie-like aesthetics and magnitude, perfectly flat and vaguely disorientating in the searing heat. Flood relief channels, overgrown ditches, scrubby roadside patches, flooded fields and the 360 panorama were the most productive areas to find birds, with most of the above conveniently located along the flanks of the single-lane roads and pot-holed tracks that snake across the area.

In common with Merritt, we spent two half-days dedicated to the area, with late evening and early morning in the surrounds of Belle Glade Marina and Campsite - a strange, isolated, slightly trashy outpost in the middle of nowhere with the distinction of being surrounded by habitat outrageously attractive for birdlife. Ponds, reedbeds, swamp and scrub - all easily accesible and within 200 metres of the marina - hosted a maelstrom of activity, soundtracked by a chorus more akin to tropical rainforest.

Both the evening and morning light cast a beautiful golden glow across the area, where the birds were fantastically accomodating - a theme that ran the length of the trip. Highlights included a chorus of entertaining Soras (with superb close views), American Bitterns, Black-crowned Night Herons, Purple Gallinules, Indigo and Painted Buntings, numerous Palm Warblers with odd Yellow-rumped and Northern Parulas, Common Moorhens (of the large-shielded American subspecies), all the requisite ibises, storks, Limpkins and herons, and a stunning, swarming northbound passage of hirundines, the majority of which consisted of many hundreds of Northern Rough-winged and Tree Swallows, with several Barn Swallows and Purple Martins within the throng.


The wider agricultural area, which we snaked through before and after the sessions at Belle Glade, hosted a variety of birdlife which altered according to often subtle changes in habitat type. Northern Harriers, Loggerhead Shrikes and American Kestrels were omnipresent, muppet-like Crested Caracaras strutted and sentried throughout, and during the winding journey southbound on the 24th, the expansive cereal crops gave way to olive groves, fertile greenery and flooded fields, and then more 'natural' grass- and swamplands as we graded into Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge.

Abundant ibises, storks, pelicans, herons and egrets continued to feature throughout (as they did until boarding the plane home), and birds of prey became even more prevalent - aside from the countless vultures, regular run-ins with the effortlessly beautiful Swallow-tailed Kites, numerous American Kestrels (we counted up to fifty and then gave up), Caracaras, omnipresent Red-shouldered Hawks, Northern Harriers and Ospreys, and well-scattered Bald Eagles, we had great views of both Swainson's and Short-tailed Hawks.

Passerines were also entertaining in this area - roadside stops produced four superb Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, a Western Kingbird, the first White-eyed Vireo (in full song), the first flock of Cedar Waxwings (in the burning midday sun outside a McD****ds), numerous Palm Warblers, well scattered Yellow-rumped Warblers and Savannah and Swamp Sparrows.

By evening we'd reached our overnight stopover on the western fringe of the Everglades, Everglades City (a city in name only - by all accounts more of a fairly serene holiday village).

The 25th - another beautiful hot and sunny day - was dedicated to the Everglades and Big Cypress preserves (but not before a singing Chuck-will's-widow outside the apartment pre-dawn). Heading out along the Tamiami Trail early on, making plenty of stops en route, we did the tourist thing for a couple of hours - a looping, guided 'tram-ride' through the heart of the Everglades. Aimed at generalist tourists (and naturally somewhat frustrating, as e.g. interesting sparrows were flushed at close quarters never to be seen again), the open-sided vehicle nonetheless allowed point-blank views of a fine cross section of native wildlife.


All the usual suspects wandered tamely within a couple of metres (including Roseate Spoonbills, both Yellowlegs, and Wilson's Snipe), and a stop-off at the main viewpoint produced perfect views of Yellow-crowned Night Herons (and plenty of comical fledgling Anhingas).

Eager to get away from the tourist trail (although not before watching Palm Warblers coming to bread in the carpark), we cut into the outback of the Everglades along the 'Loop Road' (a track through the redneck hinterland) for the next few hours, stopping en route at a trashy Native American roadside diner for a coronary-destroying lunch, with 'gators, gallinules and grackles within a few metres.

A good panorama from the roadside over the expansive marshes was factored in for one of our target species in the area. Half an hour's scanning later and no joy, until we were just about to move on - but not before our quarry, a stunning male Snail Kite, quartered the marsh before eventually dipping down out view.

The Loop Road provided plenty of welcome Lynchian weirdness as well as good birding; small flocks of passerines included the first Black-and white Warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Prairie Warblers of the trip amongst many common species.

A late evening spin around te local area was entertaining for Purple Martin colonies, more warblers and marshland species, and the novelty of being cruised along a side-road (a shaved head and a straw cowboy hat remain universally misinterpreted, but so it goes).

The 26th was our first experience of inclement weather - a huge thunderstorm in the early hours (which cut electricity and sounded more like an earthquake) rendered land normally high and dry just another part of the swamp and mud, and the morning was hampered by a humid, thick fog at our next port of call, Marco Island.

However, a drive into (the typically catchily-titled) Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve was very productive; a dirt track through sandy pine woodland and scrub produced close-to Common Ground-doves and Pileated Woodpeckers, and one of the surprises of the trip - a singing Shiny Cowbird.

Tigertail Beach, full of promise but lacking visibility, tantalisingly hosted small, hidden passerine flocks in the thick scrub and a single Piping Plover on the sand; a stop-off at a mall for coffee meanwhile produced another flock of Cedar Waxwings.

Onwards to Corkscrew Swamp Audobon Sanctuary for the afternoon, and what a smorgasbord of treats awaited us..... this stunning, primordial reserve, (perfectly) run by Audobon, includes a boardwalk which snakes through the entirety of its habitats, which are dominated by virgin swamp woodland. The boardwalk allows intimate encounters with the reserves wildlife, which incorporated a fine variety of birdlife.

Vague targets included Barred Owl, more Painted buntings and hopefully a sprinkling of warblers - and we weren't disappointed. Warblers were particularly good value, with several small flocks buzzing through the woodland incorporating a excellent array of species - expected Common Yellowthroats, Northern Parulas and Palm Warblers were joined by plenty of Black-and-white Warblers, a Yellow-rumped, a Magnolia, two American Redstarts, and three glorious new encounters - Yellow-throated and Prothonotary Warblers and a Northern Waterthrush.

Corkscrew Swamp

All the above, like most of the trip's warblers, were in dazzling spring plumage, accentuated by the sunshine and great light. The Yellow-throated was stunning, and the Prothonotary like a huge firefly buzzing through the understory - but the Northern Waterthrush was the personal favourite, 'chipping' loudly from a close, exposed branch for long enough to become well acquainted.

After being spoiled by regular and excellent views of Swallow-tailed kites, watching a pair at the nest in a tree-crown was a real treat. A word with the wardens about the Owls wasn't too encouraging - apparently they'd gone to roost in an inpenetrable part of the forest, and were unlikely to play ball. Ten minutes later, and after revelling in a close-up warbler flock, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye, at shoulder height and less than two metres away. Barred Owl.

Whispering directions and keeping movements to slow motion, we expected the bird to take flight at any second. Half an hour later, and with a regular queue of curious visitors still arriving, we'd watched the bird at a distance of one metre, oblivious to human disturbance, focused entirely on the swamp below its perch - barely an arm's length from us. Unforgettable.

More warblers, various woodpeckers, accomodating Swallow-tails and more generally beautiful surroundings later and we were back at the visitors centre, with Painted Buntings and a family of Raccoons battling for the feeders (no prizes for guessing who won). A stunning place, and hard to leave.

Overnight in Fort Myers, as a base for our early morning visit on the 27th to Sanibel Island, incorporating 'Ding' Darling Reserve - a coastal wetland reserve not unlike Merritt, its counterpart over on the east coast - and also similar in that the best birding is done from or near the car, on a snaking, raised track through the reserve. The cool, clear morning gave way to another beautiful, warm and sunny day, and the birding was again constantly entertaining.

In the post-dawn brightness it was evident that passerines had arrived in the scrub lining the sides of the track, and with the morning light poor for much of the wetland, we concentrated on the former for a good hour or two. A good move, with unrivalled views of Black-and-white, Prairie and other warblers - including a stunning male Hooded - as well as an Eastern Kingbird, a Blue-headed Vireo and various other bits and pieces.

Much of the island beyond the reserve boundary was disappointingly the exclusive domain of the obscenely-monied haves, and therefore out of bounds for dirty proles like us. However, several stops were productive, especially for freshly arrived passerines - more mixed warbler flocks, containing Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireos - as well as close-up views of gulls and terns on the jetties, and omnipresent Ospreys and White Ibises at the roadsides.

'Ding' Darling reserve, Sanibel Island

A second round of Ding Darling, with the light now much better for scanning the wetlands, was once more a treat. The aforementioned hatful of large waterbird spp. were all present and correct (with large groups of White Pelicans thrown in for good measure), plenty of Pied-billed Grebes and Blue-winged Teal, a single Red-breasted Merganser, always entertaining Reddish Egrets, and close groups of waders feeding on the exposed mud.

and Semipalmated Plovers, both Yellowlegs, conclusively both Dowitchers, Willet, Turnstones, Least Sandpipers, Red Knot and Dunlins all allowed fine views; not forgetting the group of about 15 American Oystercatchers on a sand spit on our way off the island.

Before leaving the island, we drove to the lighthouse area - allegedly good for seabirds and waders - perhaps before the 20th century, as the scene is now more reminiscent of a Miami Vice - Baywatch hybrid... however, a fine male Blue Grosbeak made a poor attempt at camouflage around the picnic area, although the assembled masses still failed to notice.

Onwards roughly north-east into the interior of the state during the heat of the afternoon, towards Sebring (our next overnight destination), with several stops en route. Another change of habitat, as we entered Three Lakes Wildlife Area - something like traditional farmland, with smaller arable fields, plenty of lush grassland, mixed scrub and copses and a subtly differing avifauna.

Eastern Meadowlarks, a stalwart of such habitat and despite the fact we came across plenty during this section of the trip, were an undoubted highlight; fence posts and clods of mud just don't get any more colourful and tuneful. Florida Scrub-jays, on the other hand, take a little more effort, and our second attempt at these endemic, endangered natives was again unsuccessful. With a third and final site on the cards within striking distance of our overnight stopover and with an hour or so of good daylight left, we had low expectations.

Which were happily decimated after about twenty minutes along a dirt track, which overlooked prime habitat for this species - sand-based, low pine-dominated scrubland, in an area called Lake June In Winter Preserve (...). Two birds honoured their commitment, with one remaining perched on a gnarled tree for a good 15 minutes, allowing great views.

Overnight in Sebring, and a later start on the 28th, but still on the road for 8 a.m. and into Three Lakes Wildlife Area again; more smaller-scale agricultural land, an covering a lare area managed for wildlife and (unfortunately) hunters. Sparrows once again beat us, with birds flushed and landing out of sight (and reach) on numerous occasions, but the meadowlarks were typically gorgeous compensation. A small, sun-burned copse held another good warbler flock - notable members included an Orange-crowned Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and at least one Clay-coloured Sparrow - and a female Merlin hunted over burned fields.

Turkey Creek Reserve

And so back to Merritt Island on the east coast for the last afternoon. With clouds thickening and then spots of rain hitting the windscreen, we were slightly concerned that a repeat tropical storm may on the way; a justifiable fear - despite a crawl around the island with lightning illuminating the pools and thunder shaking the car, we were thankfully indoors for when the worst hit. Several inches of water fell in just a few hours, and it looked as if the last birds of the trip could well be the dishevelled herons, egrets and Sora on Merritt.

No sign of any break the following morning, which was our last. However, checking the forecast revealed breaks to the west, indeed towards Orlando, where we had to check in around lunchtime. We decided to head in the opposite direction to the storm in the hope we could steal a little more time in the field before flying home. Which, thankfully, paid off. We found some promising mixed habitats where rural meets suburban, including fertile copses, flooded fields and streams by the roadside; a last throw of the die towards whatever may be within our improvised radar.

A family of Sandhill Cranes, complete with two fluffy chicks in convoy, would've been a good enough endgame, but fortunately a cacophony of calls from a roadside woodland signalled a final warbler flock to savour. Palm, Pine and Yellow-rumped all present and correct, as well as single Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireos and several Gnatcatchers; but the final dash of glamour was provided by a superb male Blackpoll Warbler alongside five or six females.

a last flock of warblers en route to the airport

Grudgingly, and with the skies clearing and the day warming by the minute, we headed out to the airport and home to Blighty, a hugely enjoyable and productive trip behind us.