Tuesday 14 April 2015

Florida Family Birding #1

To celebrate our 21st birthdays at the end of last year (well, 40ths), we booked a fly drive to Florida to hunt down giant rodents for the kids and some long sought-after birds and other wildlife for me. Conveniently, a trip to Cuba a few years back meant that I didn't 'need' much of the rare and scarce that southern Florida turns up, so I could concentrate on some of the commoner Eastern US species I had not seen before, plus one or two of the state specialities and other critters, whilst having a bit of a relax and fun with the family. This was never going to be a hardcore birding trip, but shows what can be achieved with a rather lazy attitude to planning, plus a few early morning walks and convenient 'lunch stops' in suitable spots, whilst ensuring the family has a cracking time.

Swallow-tailed Kite - logo of the Birding Trail and one of the main highlights of the trip

Essential to the success of the trip was a very understanding wife, patient kids and the excellent Great Florida Birding Trail website (and subsequently leaflet I got given). I used the Sibley Guide to birds of Eastern North America and the reasonably old but still pretty useful 'A Birder's Guide to Florida' by Bill Pranty. Apart from the GFBT website, I found it difficult to find much of use on the web. The rare bird alert service is useful, particularly if you want to check out tropical overshoots on the keys such as Key West Quail Dove and LaSagra's Flycatcher.

Our trip involved a Virgin Atlantic flight from London Heathrow to Miami, with car rental through Alamo. I would recommend this package. We booked our accommodation in advance through the internet without any trouble, either directly or through Expedia.

Being the end of the dry season we saw no mosquitoes hardly.  Most sites visited had good infrastructure, with car parks, marked trails, whilst some had viewpoints, toilets and interpretation. All sites were marked with brown Trail signs - see above.

29-30 March 2015:
Key Largo
A stroll around the environs of the apartment near the sweetly named Lake Surprise got my eye and ear in with much of the common stuff we would see over the fortnight, including Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Common Ground Dove, Northern Flicker, Northern Mockingbird, Palm Warbler, Common Grackle and the naturalised Common Myna. Highlights were a single Magnificent Frigatebird and a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins.

Palm warbler. The commonest warbler, seen in all habitats, regularly dipping it's tail, like a Chiffchaff. Quite confiding and calling a standard 'chip'.

Dagny Johnson Botanical Park, Key Largo
Meant to be a great site for Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-whiskered Vireo, White-crowned Pigeon and migrant warblers, but proved to be a bit disappointing on both visits, though the middle of the day and dusk are probably not the best times to be birding! An easy site to bird, with toilets and marked trails, again, enjoyed adding new species here including the Florida subspecies of Prairie Warbler, Grey Catbird, Northern Cardinal, White-eyed Vireo and White Ibis. Migrants included three American Herring Gulls and a Cooper's Hawk overhead and a stunning male Cape May Warbler.

Prairie Warbler. This is presumably the resident Florida subspecies paludicola though this is far from certain.

Grey Catbird. Fairly skulking, but easier to see than I would have thought and once the obvious calls are sussed, noted as a pretty common species.

One of the lakes in Dagny Johnson which held little apart from Pied-billed Grebes.

John Pennekamp State Park
We didn't really explore this large touristy site as we mainly accessed it to go out to the coral reef offshore. Highlights from this site included Atlantic Green Turtle,  Great White Heron (white variant of Great Blue Heron), Bottlenose Dolphins, plus more new stuff such as Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Royal Tern, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-winged Blackbird. More unexpected were three Northern Gannets over the reef.

Great White Heron. Really a Great Blue Heron, this white variant is common in the Keys and we saw a few in the Everglades also.

Great Crested Fly - very common and conspicuous throughout the area.

In the evening of the 30th, there was a bit of migrant passage, with Purple Martin and Barn and Tree Swallows moving north, plus a Turnstone, Ring-billed Gull and Black-crowned Night Heron by the apartment new for the trip list.

31 March - Everglades National Park

We left Key Largo early on and headed north then west into the Everglades. The trip was quite productive, with Northern Harrier, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker and Loggerhead Shrike from the car as well as a tantalising glimpse of a Swallow-tailed Kite over the sawgrass. Sadly, we couldn't stop as we were on the highway.

Shark Valley
The strangely-named Shark Valley was our first introduction to Everglades birding and didn't disappoint. We did the 17 mile tram ride down to the observation tower, which was well worth it. You can't drive yourself and in the heat with no shade it would be a bit of a killer to cycle or walk.

Though very touristy, the guide was a solid naturalist and gave us a great introduction to the landscape of sawgrass plains interspersed with hammocks of trees and scrub growing on depressions or pinnacles of limestone, and the wildlife of the Everglades.

Plenty of Gators about, plus another distant glimpse of a Swallow-tailed Kite and also a distant Snail Kite, white tail band gleaming in the sun. Plenty of Black Vultures here which would become a common site throughout, plus Boat-tailed Grackles which seem common in the marshes, a cracking Limpkin, American Purple Gallinule, several Wood Storks, Anhinga and all the common herons (Green, Little Blue, Tricoloured, Great Blue, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret).

Wood Storks and Glossy and White Ibis. Wood Storks are really suffering from water abstraction by farmers, which is reducing the water levels drastically in the marshes and their numbers are plummeting. The abstraction also causes saline water to be sucked in to the Everglades from the sea damaging the ecosystem.


Drive to Everglades City
We did the Loop Road 94 off the SR41 just west of Shark Valley, but there were no views over the landscape, as trees grew either side of the road all the way. We passed by in the middle of the afternoon when it was hot so saw very little but this would be certainly worth a look early in the morning. A little further down the 41 west of Monroe Station we picked up a Swallow-tailed Kite over the road, so pulled into the aptly-named Birdon Road and stopped. For the next 20 minutes we were treated to the awesome sight of four of these spectacular raptors cruising overhead picking up dragonflies in flight and eating them on the wing like giant pied Hobbies.

Swallow-tailed Kites. These birds spend the winter in South America and will have only recently arrived back in Florida. The adults have long tail streamers so presumably the last photo is of a first summer bird.

A bird I had longed to see, to get these views was just great and I lost myself in watching them, so much so that I nearly trod on a large snake that had slithered out on to the trail. On closer inspection it proved to be a three foot long Cottonmouth, one of Florida's venomous species, so I am glad I didn't tread on it!

Cottonmouth. So named because it has a gleaming white mouth which it uses to ward off would-be attackers.

We arrived in Everglades City deep in the heart of the swamp by teatime. The usual birds were around including stacks of Ospreys. The sound of their piping was a constant background noise and some were nesting on platforms in people's yards! Other stuff of note were American White Pelican, three Pileated Woodpeckers on one telegraph pole, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Purple Martin and Kildeer.

1 April:
Wagonwheel Road Loop
This loop runs north of the 41 east of the turn to Everglades City and includes Birdon Road mentioned earlier. It was fairly quiet along the wooded sections, but the marshland at the north end was more interesting, where I added Marsh Wren, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark and Eastern Kingbird, as well as this rather smart Great White Heron.

Big Cypress Bend (part of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve)
This small reserve lies just west of the turn for Everglades City on the north side of the 41. It has a car park, toilets and a half mile boardwalk through superb large cypress hammock to a shady pool full of Alligators. Arriving at lunchtime was again not the best, but it was still pretty good with adult Bald Eagle overhead, several Northern Parulas singing, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Black and White Warbler and best of all, a showy Louisiana Waterthrush around the pool at the end of the boardwalk. This is an uncommon migrant in southern Florida and I am pretty sure of the ID based on a big broad super and sparse underpart streaking etc.

Louisiana Waterthrush, hanging out by the water in Florida.

More to follow...

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