Trip Report for Venture to Florida
January 3 – 12, 2014
Some of us flew down, while others decided to drive and yes, why not, we just had to go birding on the way, especially as Florida’s third Snowy Owl was sitting on a barrier island north of Jacksonville. It was cold, very cold for Florida, but the 5 of us hiked up the beach and joined several other people enjoying the owl.
Thankfully it was slightly warmer in Orlando, but only slightly so by the time everyone had arrived. Dinner was at the adjacent restaurant, which I recognized from having eaten there a few years ago. I didn’t remember the food at all though!
Our first stop was East Lake Tohopekaliga in the small town of St Cloud. The lake is fringed with reed beds making it a reliable spot for both Snail Kite and Limpkin, both of which we found within the first 15 minutes. The Limpkins were almost like chickens as they wandered around on the short grass taking no notice of us at all. A closer examination of the nearby brush found plenty of Apple Snail shells; evidence that the birds had enjoyed many meals of escargots! Some local birders were out doing the local Christmas Bird Count and were very helpful is showing us a female Great Horned Owl quietly sitting on her nest in the crotch of a Live Oak tree. She barely batted an eyelid even when John moved forward to get a few more photos.
An important part of every birding trip is the food. While some folks are happy to grab a burger and carry on, I always like to find interesting food that maybe tells you a little about where you are in the world. We found a neat little café in the old historic center of St Cloud and enjoyed a local sandwich in one of the oldest buildings in town. The afternoon was spent exploring the piney woods along Canoe Creek Road and the boat ramp at Joe Overstreet Landing. This was the site of a failed Whooping Crane reintroduction, and it seemed as if most of the remaining cranes had been killed by the local bobcats. Small numbers of Savannah Sparrows perched along the barbed wire fence and in one of the roadside bushes we had our only Tufted Titmouse of the trip.
Titusville and the locally famous Dixie Crossroads restaurant was our base for the evening for the first of many good seafood meals of the tour.
It’s easy to spend the whole day at Merritt Island NWR as there’s so much to see and do. The highlight has to be Black Point Drive that circles through a variety of pools, wetlands and mangrove thickets. Almost every species of heron, egret and ibis was feeding in the shallow waters and both Bald Eagle and Osprey flew overhead. I think one of the highlights had to be the flight of Roseate Spoonbills that sailed in to feed directly in front of us; also the large flock of Pintail that flew up when a helicopter passed overhead, only to land again after the perceived threat had passed. We stopped at Viera Wetlands for a picnic lunch in the small gazebo; a very handy spot to shelter from the rain and to see the surrounding pools. A friend of mine, Jim, was also birding in the area and reminded me of the nearby Click Ponds. While the birding at Viera was average, the numbers of different species and individuals was much higher at the nearby Click Ponds. A large flock of Green-winged Teal carpeted the shallow water and they were dwarfed by a flock of White Pelicans. Greater Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpipers fed in the deeper water and a small flock of diving duck graced the upper pool. We missed the Painted Buntings at Tim’s feeders due to passing rainstorms, but Billi made us some Red Velvet cupcakes as a wonderful welcome. It was then off to West Palm Beach for the evening. Dinner was excellent at a small, somewhat eclectic eatery, surrounded by tattoos and bizarre artwork and very conveniently situated adjacent to our hotel.
Wakodahatchee is a terrific birding location and is a birdwatchers and photographers dream. Great Blue Herons were starting to display and Anhingas already had young chicks in their nests, Purple Gallinules fed on the lily pads and Alligators lazed around on the grass, entertaining the visitors. This was followed by a visit to Green Cay, which has matured into a fantastic marshland. The boardwalk enables visitors (us!) to enjoy the birds without getting our feet even damp. Birds were so close that we had to sometimes stand on our toes to look down at them. We saw at least 15 Sora (most feeding out in the open), both American and Least Bittern (within feet), Red-shouldered Hawk and Northern Harrier and watched a male Red-winged Blackbird display and show off to a nearby female. That night we stayed in Florida City, gateway to Everglades National Park and then the weather detiorated. The “polar vortex” was spiraling down into the Southern US and the wind and rain were on the way. Temperatures back in Asheville, NC had dipped below 0F with a wind chill dropping the temperature to a record-breaking -25F. It was 48F when we awoke the next morning and our day in the Everglades was not one of the best. The wind blew all day and kept all the birds down and out of view. A walk along the infamous Snake Bight Trail produced almost nothing (which was bad) but also no mosquitos (which was good) and it was so chilly we could not find any Crocodiles. I expect that they were hidden deep in the mangroves staying warm. Some of us did manage to see a White-crowned Pigeon as it flew rapidly out of the roadside bushes only to deflect off the windshield. Luckily we found no corpse in the road…….
We had another visit to Lucky Hammock the following morning where we had a quick glimpse of the Wilson’s Warbler as it disappeared into the thick subtropical vegetation. Aside from that, the noisy Great Crested Flycatcher showed itself very well, which was more than could be said of our only Brown-crested Flycatcher of the tour which was down along the canal. We heard it call a few times, but it never appeared out of the dense thickets. A couple of Magnolia Warblers did eventually show themselves and the brief sunshine did bring out some spectacular butterflies. Several Zebra Heliconids nectared on the Bidens, along with a bright orange Julia and several dark Viceroys.
It was then down into the Keys in rather gray, overcast conditions. Rain squalls passed over regularly and we ended up having lunch looking out over the bay. It was not nice enough to sit outside so we watched the wet pelicans and gulls before driving on down to Marathon. The rain persisted so we ended up having an early afternoon at the hotel. It was so damp and chilly I had to turn on the heating in my room as they did during our dinner that evening. So much for the sunny Florida Keys!
We started the next day looking at shorebirds up along Grassy Key. The shore at low tide produced some of our best waders of the trip with Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers feeding along the shoreline, along with Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers and a single Semipalmated Sandpiper; quite the shorebird lesson at a pretty close range. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the local golf courses looking for Burrowing Owls with not much luck. A stop at Bahia Honda State Park produced some sunshine (briefly) as well as a very nice warbler flock at the edge of the mangroves. I believe we had 6 species without even moving our feet as Ovenbird, Prairie, Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, and Northern Parula all came within a few feet of us. Our first Yellow-crowned Night-Herons of the trip were roosting down at the small marina and they barely even blinked at our presence. Our last stop of the day (still searching for that elusive White-crowned Pigeon) was the Key West Botanical Gardens, a lovely semi-natural garden with native vegetation and pools, but no pigeons. The highlight was the flock of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that was coming into their evening roost along with a very scruffy Western Kingbird.
Key West is a fun town; it’s a combination of trashy tourism, somewhat eclectic restaurants and lots of history. We drove around some of the neighborhoods enjoying the ambience and finished the day with a delicious meal at one of my favorite little restaurants- “Mangia, Mangia” – a great little out of the way place. Talking of food……breakfast was also at a very cool (almost Asheville-esque!) little place surrounded by some of Key West’s famous chickens. Blue Heaven has great coffee and a very inventive menu. Just wish it was a little closer.
We had to start north again the next morning, but explored some of the local birding spots in and around Key West. The new boardwalk near the airport had a somewhat cooperative Northern Waterthrush and Orange-crowned Warbler and a walk around the new rehab facility in Indigenous Park. Yes, we tried again for those darn Burrowing Owls and once again they eluded us. Obviously this was just not meant to be so we drove back north again towards Florida City and our hotel near the Everglades National Park. We had a date the following morning with Paul Bithorn, a local birder who specializes in taking visitors to see the local parrots and other Miami exotics. We met him at Matheson Hammock in Coral Gables, a beautiful forested park adjacent to Fairchild Botanical Gardens. There had been a La Sagra’s Flycatcher here for the past month and we spent the first hour or so slowly wandering the park until some other birders located it. Yes, we ended up with great views (and photos) of this vagrant from the Bahamas. In the same area we also had great views of the attractive and rapidly increasing (Indian) Hill Myna and several fly-overs Yellow-chevroned Parakeets. The nearby dog park had our only Indigo Buntings of the whole tour plus some rather distant Nutmeg Mannikins. We did a fair amount of neighborhood cruising, but did not have much luck with the Bulbul and Oriole; apparently both suffered with the cold condition a couple of years ago and they also tend to be very tough to see in the winter months. Despite that we had a very enjoyable time with Paul seeing many of the local birds and finished with a large flock of mixed Aratinga parakeets. Thankfully Paul was able to able to distinguish between the 6 different species- gosh, it was tough and yes, one does normally see these species together in the same location. We ended our Florida trip with a great meal out at “Catch of the Day” – an evening of great food, music and company – sort of sounds like the whole tour actually.