Tuesday 12 May 2015

Florida Family Birding #3

A dawn visit from Casey Key to Oscar Shaerer State Park was my first crack at the legendary Florida Scrub Jay and one of my 'must see' birds of the trip. I turned up before the gate was open and a little walk in along the drive revealed Blue-headed Vireos singing away, rather smart little dudes. A pair of Wood Ducks flew over and then it hit 8am and I was allowed in. I headed off round one of the trails and after seeing a few Blue Jays mobbing a Sharp-shinned Hawk, I picked up a distant Scrub Jay perched on a dead pine - great! This was a great start and I headed on round to seek better views. The heath was relatively quiet apart from the loud calls of Northern Bobwhites which drove me a bit mad, though I eventually chanced upon a couple of these small quail. A Red-headed Woodpecker was a cracking first, but surprisingly, I didn't come across any more Scrub Jays. A distant Bald Eagle nest with attendant Eagle was a nice surprise. Back to the car and on to another trail where frustratingly I still didn't find any Scrub Jays. I met two American birders who told me I was in the right spot but they hadn't seen any either despite attempting to tape lure them. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers displaying by the car was a fine consolation but I would have to try elsewhere.

Back at Casey Key for breakfast with the kids and unbelievably a dark shape in the crystal clear shallows turned out to be a Manatee! It swam right past us about five metres out and we followed it all along the beach. Bumped into a tern roost on the beach, which included 13 Black Skimmers, c50 Royal Terns, an American Herring Gull and three Cabot's Terns.

Sad to leave the idyllic Casey Key, we headed north to Tampa and then east to Orlando. The kids had been brilliant and really enjoyed the wildlifey stuff, so it was their turn for some fun. Before the Disney-fuelled chaos began we had a little trip down to East Lake Tohopakagee which delivered in fine style, with crazy views of Sandhill Cranes walking about on people's lawns on the shore of the lake, while up to eight stonking Snail Kites quartered the cattails on the edge of the lake, diving in for Apple Snails. I couldn't bring myself to take a photo of a Crane in somebody's garden, so went for a more natural looking effort, even if they were a bit further away! A Limpkin called but failed to show itself, while a few Tree Swallows went through. Soon it was time to hit the hay as we would be mouse-bothering come the morning.

Bizarrely, on the way into Magic Kingdom the next morning, I saw a Swallow-tailed Kite over the road - ace!

After surviving three days of Disney fun it was time to get back into character. We drove east to Merritt Island, giving Sol the chance to see some rockets and me the chance to do a bit of wildlife-ing.

We did the Black Point Trail which gave the kids some great views of some common stuff, like Tricoloured, Green and Great Blue Herons and me the chance to add Roseate Spoonbill, a stonking Sora, and a few more Mottled Ducks. Best of all however, was just down the road where we spotted a sign for a Manatee Watchpoint and this gave us stonking views of several Manatees loafing about in the shadows and occasionally cuddling each other!

Merritt wildlife - from top:  Eastern Kingbird, Fritillary sp, Green Heron, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark.

Some Manatee shots:

Off-island we went and south down the coast to Sebastian, noting a flock of Cedar Waxwings on route. From the restaurant that night, we saw more Bottlenose Dolphins, Least and Forster's Terns. Smart.

And so dawned our last day. Up early, I headed down to Sebastian River State Park for my last chance of Florida Scrub Jays. Dumping the car in the little reserve car park, I headed off into the heath. Eastern Towhees sang from the scrub along with Carolina Wrens, and then suddenly a squawk revealed a Scrub Jay flying across the heath in the distance. Surely this wouldn't be a repeat of the other day! I carried on along the sandy track and then another squawk and a Scrub Jay landed in a pine tree just a few metres away - brilliant! For the next half an hour up to four Scrub Jays (in two separate pairs) followed me as I walked along, seemingly looking for food in the disturbed earth I left with my footsteps. This gave me brilliant views. The birds were all colour-ringed and are presumably part of a research project. This species is well known for a cooperative breeding system in which offspring stay around and help their parents with subsequent broods. I had learned about these birds in my degree, so to get good views of this scarce Florida endemic was a thrill and a fitting end to a fantastic holiday. But the fat lady hadn't sung, and heading back to the hotel to join the kids for one last swim in the pool and over the road flew my bird of the trip, a Swallow-tailed Kite. Brilliant!

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