After my and Keren’s wonderful holiday to South Africa last November, we were both feeling the effect of S.A.D. as the weather here on the Isle of Man was mainly damp, dull and grey. The birding was pretty dull also and we were struggling to ‘come down’ from the high we’d just experienced.
So, when we were contacted by Trevor, our dear friend and fellow birder, offering us a weeks holiday in the sunshine state of Florida where he lives, we jumped at the chance.
I immediately bought the ‘Sibley Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America’ (my 25 year-old copy of the National Geographic fieldguide really wasn’t up to the task) and started putting together a list of ‘desirables and availables’ based on the distribution maps therein. I reckoned there were approximately 100 new birds available to me in the state but, working on my average strike rate, I could expect about 60 to70 – more than enough to alleviate my winter blues! I sent Trevor the list and he set about putting together a loose itinerary for us.
I booked the flights (with MyTours), in December, for a ridiculously cheap price (£460 return for the pair of us) and we sat back and waited for the weeks until February to grind by.
Here’s the day-by-day account (as with the Africa trip report, the law of diminishing returns will make each day’s account shorter than it’s predecessor).
Day 1 – Saturday 25th. February
Eventually, the day for departure arrived and we left a cold, wet and miserable Manchester behind. I must say, though, the 9-hour flight to Sanford, Orlando Airport was a bit tedious and cramped – but I suppose it would be churlish to complain seeing as we’d paid less for our tickets than a flight to London from the IoM!!!
As our plane finally touched down and taxied to the terminal, I could make out several large raptors soaring over a distant woodland but, at that time, I couldn’t put a name to them which was very frustrating – I like to get my first tick from the aircraft!
At 1:30pm, Trevor met us outside the terminal building and we set about the hike, luggage and all, to where he had parked the car – it must have been a couple of miles away! There were several corvids flying around the large car park, which Trevor told us were “probably American Crows” – I told him they were ‘probably’ my first tick!
As we sat in the car whilst Trevor found the right credit card to pay the parking ticking (you’d have thought that American Express would have done nicely, but no!), a small party of Cattle Egrets walked past right next to the car. A pity then, that the cameras were in the boot (trunk?)!
On the journey back to Trevor’s house, my first ‘positively identified’ tick came in the form of a Great Blue Heron, which flew across the road in front of us. Soon after, we were sat at a set of traffic lights which happened to be alongside a smallish lake on which were a couple of Ring-necked Ducks, a single Pied-billed Grebe and several, fabulous, ‘non-escaped’ drake Hooded Mergansers. On the shoreline there were a couple of Double-crested Cormorants and an Anhinga drying it’s wings in typical pose. I picked up a small passerine in a roadside bush but couldn’t get any detail on it, as I was looking into the sun, but Trevor assured me it was a Palm Warbler courtesy of it’s constantly pumped tail. A few miles further down the road and we started seeing raptors – Turkey Vultures soared/wobbled on deeply ‘V’d wings and a couple of Ospreys hovered over more roadside pools.
“I’m just going to take a short detour, to a site you may like” Trevor announced. 30 seconds later, he pulled the car up on a roadside verge and we were looking at the nest of a Bald Eagle not 100 yds away, complete with adult and fledgling. We were gobsmacked. We had more or less expected to see Bald Eagles, but not quite so easily or so soon. Remarkably, 2 minutes after we left that captivating sight, we were pulling up in the ‘city’ of Windermere and onto the driveway of Trevor’s beautiful home. The eagles were nesting within a mile of his house!!
Whilst Keren was unpacking, Trevor took me to one of his local birding sites, Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve (what IS a preserve? I thought it was like jam or marmalade!).
On the way there we added, from the car at 50mph, Ring-billed Gull, Forster’s Tern and Mourning Dove. “I’ve scouted this place out and we’ll easily get American Goldfinch on the feeders by the visitor centre” Trevor confidently declared. What we actually got was errrr…d’you know, all I can remember about this first visit here was dipping on the Goldfinches, but my list tells me we saw Sandhill Crane, Pileated Woodpecker and Eastern Phoebe. Seriously though, I remember the crane and the (bonkers) woodpecker, but the phoebe has completely gone. I blame the jet-lag. What I do remember was that, on the way back to the house, I noticed something on a roadside telegraph pole that aroused my interest.
“Do you have those bloody plastic owl things which are used to deter starling roosts” I asked.
“There are one or two dotted about the place, but they’re not a familiar sight, why?” came the reply.
“In that case, I think there’s one on a telegraph-pole back there”, I told him.
“I think we should turn round and go back for a look – just to make sure” Trevor suggested.
By this time we were ½mile down the road and travelling at 50mph, Trevor swung the car round (I’m not convinced the handbrake didn’t come in to play at this point), and 2 minutes later we could both see the familiar outline of a large owl still on the pole where I had clocked it. But was it plastic or real? We pulled up and attempted to determine it’s tickability through the windscreen. For what seemed like an age we stared through the dirty window (it’s on the inside Trevor!) until, finally, the head moved!! I dived out of the car and started taking photos as I approached the bird, slowly, from about 100yds. Eventually, courtesy of my superior field-craft skills, I got right beneath the bird and rattled off a shedload of photos. Great Horned Owl UTB and what a stonker! The bird was still sat there when we left 15 minutes later.
Continuing back to the house, I added Loggerhead Shrike to my life list – again at speed!!
That evening before going out for a few beers Trevor and I took a short walk down to the nearby lake and I got great views of my first Northern Mockingbirds, brief views of Blue Jays (nervy buggers, just like their European cousins) and positively identified American Crows. Once back at the house and in the garden, we got a couple of wonderful little Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, a Goldcrest-like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a bright yellow Pine Warbler and a smashing, colourful, Northern Parula.
So day 1 ended and, without really trying, I had already got 15 ticks!
Day 2 – Sunday 26th. February
The morning dawned bright, but quite cold with a strong wind blowing. Instead of partaking in breakfast, I ventured out into the back garden and started birding.
Just as Trevor joined me, a party of birds was moving through the canopy of large trees – another Palm Warbler, an even brighter Parula, several Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?”. I got an impression of a small, grey bird with a ridiculous ‘glow-in-the-dark’, yellow throat. I had my suspicions as to it’s identity, but didn’t want to name it in case I made myself look like a pillock in front of Trevor (OK, I didn’t want to make myself look like a bigger pillock in front of Trevor!). Eventually and just as neck-ache was beginning to be an issue, the bird revealed itself in full – a Yellow-throated Warbler and a completely mind-blowing bird. Even Trevor got excited at this one. This would be worth a few beers tonight!
Leaving the house, our first port of call this morning was to be Oaklands Nature Reserve (or some such place), where Trevor had heard there were a small number Painted Buntings visiting a feeding station. A quick word with the warden and some detailed directions later and we were overlooking a patch of bushes in front of which was a small, low-down bird table, hoping to see the most ridiculously gaudy bunting there is to be seen. We waited and waited but nothing was on show, so we decided to head down the boardwalk and see what else we could locate in the bushes/swamp that was being battered by the wind. One of the first birds I got onto was a woodpecker, but in typical fashion it disappeared round the far side of a tree trunk and I had to wait an age until it finally peered round to see if we were still watching – a fabulous Red-bellied Woodpecker. Once he realised the game was up, he put on a wonderful show right out in the open. A noisy group of birds then flew over and landed in the spanish moss adorned trees in the distance. We managed to ID them as Common Grackles with a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds amongst them, but the views were wholly unsatisfactory and only just tickable! Further down the boardwalk and at a sheltered spot, we got into a roving flock of passerines that contained several gorgeous Yellow-rumped Warblers and an amazing Blue-headed Vireo. Unfortunately the birds were very active and I failed to get any photos of the brighter birds, a feature of our trip that was to be all too regular. At the end of the boardwalk there was ajuv/imm Little Blue Heron that I initially ID’d as a Snowy Egret until a smugly smirking Trevor corrected me. Git.
Over the lake we got decent views of Caspian Tern, Great Blue Heron, Double-crested Cormorant and Anhinga but the wind was making things difficult and even a little cold. Heading back down the boardwalk to the ‘feeding station’ we got better views of the grackles and blackbirds and what an uninspiring bunch of birds they were! Actually, the grackles were quite nice once the sun came out but the red patches on the blackbirds could only be fully seen when they were in flight. A couple of yards further on and Trevor told me that the bird singing from the nearby swamp was a Carolina Wren. Despite waiting silently, we didn’t see it. We did, however, get a fly-over Black Vulture and Red-shouldered Hawk.
Back at the feeding station, we immediately got onto a male Painted Bunting but, once I got over the initial ‘wow factor’, I quickly got bored with it. However, a Northern Cardinal, a Chipping Sparrow and a typically skulking Grey Catbird joined it but again, the views were very brief. After ½ hour Trevor and I wandered off into the nearby woods to see what else we could locate. Almost the first bird I saw was familiar to me (having seen 2 in the UK) and I called it before Trevor even raised his bins “American Redstart” and a real belter. Unfortunately this bird also quickly vanished – this was getting very annoying for someone who wanted to take photos!
We moved on to a site at Zellwood where Trevor said there was a local rarity and one that would be a good addition to our trip list – a Common Goldeneye! On the way a fly-over Wood Stork gave me another tick and was closely followed by a male American Kestrel on roadside wires. Fortunately, on arriving on site, we dipped on the Goldeneye but had great, if once again brief, views of a Belted Kingfisher and a Greater Yellowlegs. One of the birds I had really wanted to get photos of was Hooded Merganser but as soon as I was close enough to get a reasonable shot and poked my head over the chain-mail fence the flock scarpered, leaving a solitary, grotty female in the middle of the lake!
Trevor then suggested we try Apopka North Shore for the Florid Scrub Jays “but”, he warned, “they can be elusive and I’ve seen them only on about 3 out 5 visits”. On arriving on site, we parked by a gate (it’s a private site) and immediately noticed a small group of 4 birders about 100yds down the track. They just appeared to be standing around and not raising their bins. “They may, have the scrub jays” suggested Trevor. I raised my bins and looked at the adjacent scrub and immediately got onto a bright blue Florida Scrub Jay. “That big guy looks like Wes Biggs” said Trevor “who’s he” I asked, “Florida’s biggest lister” came the reply “This guy really knows his stuff – perhaps we should join them as he clearly has permission to be on the land”. We scrambled through the gate and approached the group. Whilst Trevor was making the introductions we were treated to some amazingly close views of the birds in question. After a couple of minutes, one of Wes’ party produced a bag of peanuts and held one out - a bird landed on her hand, took the nut and flew off to bury it’s prize!! Kindly, the lady handed us some nuts and we enjoyed the spectacle of 4 birds taking the food from our hands and even landing on our heads!! “Yeah, they’re really elusive” I quipped to Trevor. After 15 minutes of these ridiculous birds we ambled down the track, followed by the jays until they got bored with the lack of treats. After about 200yds, Keren asked “What’s that brown woodpecker in the tree?” Classic directions in an area flanked by hundreds of trees! Eventually we got onto the bird in question and got reasonable views of our first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Well-in Keren! This bird was closely followed by a fly-over Northern Flicker, it’s yellow underwings being the give-away ID feature. Along this path we got Red-tailed Hawk, Tree Swallow, and a particularly daft 9-banded Armadillo – it’s poor senses of sight and hearing allowing us to get really close. It was at this point that I realised I was rapidly approaching my 2,000th tick for my life list and Wes’ took it on himself to find me “something special for such a landmark”. Counting what I’d had so far I only needed one bird and Wes’ pulled it out of the bag with a superb White-eyed Vireo. (There was a brief panic when I thought #2,000 was a grotty, distant Boat-tailed Grackle, but a recount made the vireo the landmark bird. Sweet.) Further on the track we got brief views of a large owl disappearing into the dense bush which we put down as a second Great Horned. There were warblers everywhere, but their high activity and dense undergrowth made for tricky viewing but we eventually got good views of Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers. We also managed fleeting views of an Eastern Towhee. As the habitat opened up we overlooked a large area of scattered open water on which were Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals, Glossy Ibis, Tri-coloured Heron and hawking over the rough grassland a couple of Hen Harriers (I can’t bring myself to call them Northern Harriers!). On the walk back to where the car was parked, Wes’ guests called “Barred Owl”, but only two of them saw it and, as it had flown from where the previous owl had disappeared into, we put it down as a ‘possible only’ (I still think it was the Great Horned gain).
Back near the car a small woodpecker flew into a path-side tree and gave great views – “Downy Woodpecker”, I said to Keren so she could add it to our list. Whilst I was watching the bird, I heard a sharp intake of breath from her as she was behind me and I turned to see a Florida Scrub Jay sat on her head!!! The bird stayed there for the next 15 minutes, during which time a bird which was singing from deep within a bush revealed itself to be a Brown Thrasher. As I was trying to put the other members of our small group onto the bird, I raised my arm to point it out and another Florida Scrub Jay landed on my outstretched hand. Crazy. There must be something in the genetic make-up of this species as there’s apparently another seldom-visited site where they do exactly the same sort of stuff.
Just as we were about to leave these wonderful birds behind (Keren had to wave ‘her’ bird off her head so she could get into the car!), Trevor picked-up a bird on a distant wire “looks like a Kingbird” he proclaimed. “Hmm”, I said, “that’s a bit ambitious at that range”, so out came the ‘scope and, sure enough, he confirmed the bird as a “Western Kingbird”. Sometimes it’s not necessary to say anything, but from the look on Trevor’s face I knew he was gloating!
Our next stop was for an actual kingbird roost at Hooper’s Farm (an orange grove) where several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers had also been coming in to roost over the last few weeks. Now this was one I really wanted to see. On the way there a fly-by Common Nighthawk and a Sharp-shinned Hawk provided brief, but diagnostic, views.
Arriving on site, Wes’ and his gang were already set up and scoping the distant power lines on which were several dozen Western kingbirds, American Robins and Cedar Waxwings (note how I didn’t mention you miss-ID-ing the Waxwings, Trev’!). Several long and cold minutes passed as more and more kingbirds came in when, all of a sudden, someone shouted “here they are, overhead”. I looked up to see at least 6 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, probably more, with bright salmon-pink underwings and ridiculously long tail streamers flying over. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. We watched the bird for a further 20 minutes until fading light and dropping temperatures beat us into submission. What a day, I ended it on 44 lifers for the trip and a trip-list of 72 species.
Day 3 – Monday 27th. February
For today, Trevor had planned a journey out to Merritt Island, a huge area of salt marsh and lagoons, on the east coast of Florida.
Feeling a little rough after last night’s over-indulgences (celebrations for reaching 2,000+ species), I wandered out into the garden with a cup of coffee and a throbbing head. Nothing new presented itself other than a Tufted Titmouse, but it was enough to fire me up for the day’s birding ahead.
Our first stop on our 1½ journey (nowhere is Florida is local birding it seems), was at a boat-launching ramp off the SR50 road. 20 minutes here added American White Pelican, White Ibis, Killdeer (great birds), Lesser Yellowlegs, Fish Crow (their silly, nasal calls being the easiest way to ID them) Brown-headed Cowbirds and Laughing Gull. Further down the road we stopped at a small park at the base of Merritt Island Causeway and got Purple Martin (yes, they were at a mock-Georgian nesting condo’!), Bonaparte’s Gull, Brown Pelican, Great Northern Diver (Common Loon, my backside!), Sanderling, Turnstone, Collared Dove (!), Royal Tern (impressive), Lesser Scaup (yuck!) and a small flock of Black Skimmers but in a brief visit to great excitement – stonkers!
Driving round the myriad of tracks that criss-cross the marshes we got stunning views of Reddish Egret, Snowy Egret, Great White Egret, Wilson’s Snipe (obviously different to Common Snipe!), Green Heron, and Roseate Spoonbill (“tart’s birds”, according to Trevor - Keren thought they were smart). There were herons of all varieties everywhere and scattered amongst them were good numbers of yellowlegs, Least and Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers (easy), and Mottled Duck (dull but distinctive). At a small pumping station, a streaky, grovelling passerine confused me until I put it into context and nailed it as a Savannah Sparrow (a split from princeps would be nice, please!).
Trevor was complaining at the lack of waders due to the very low water levels, but a fly-by Cooper’s Hawk was nice as it created havoc amongst all the birds and a Common Ground Dove looked for all the world like a quail as it scurried along the track. A good Florida rarity came in the form of the long-staying Greater Snow Goose (nice to see one with decent credentials for a change!). On the pool behind the goose, the Skimmers were putting on a wonderful show as they fed back and forth not 20 yds from the track. Amongst a mixed flock of waders, egrets, terns and herons I picked-up a couple of Grey Plover (black-bellied? Pah!), but it was a very distant, sleeping bird that caught my attention. We had been hoping to get Marbled Godwit and I was almost certain that this is what I’d found, but Trevor got his scope onto it and pointed out how plain the bird was and that it had grey legs. After a brief wait, the bird woke up to reveal itself as a Willet, not quite as good as a godwit, but a nice bird nonetheless – especially when it flew a short distance revealing it’s distinctive wing pattern. I suppose I should mention that all round the reserve there were lots of Alligators and turtles basking in the sunshine. Some of the ‘gators were particularly large and menacing.
We paid a brief visit to the area around the visitor centre and, as is often the case, the people manning the shop weren’t particularly helpful with gen but did tell us that the Eastern Screech Owls were occupying a nest box beside the board-walk. Unfortunately there were too many dudes wandering about (identifiable by their failure to use Zeiss, Swarovski or Leica binoculars, according to my snobbish host) making a racket and they never showed themselves, but we did get better views of another Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
“We’ll call in at Orlando Wetlands as it’s on the way home” Trevor announced “it’s a sure-fire site for Purple Gallinule”.
45 minutes later we arrived on site and were scouring the reed edges of this huge freshwater marshland. And dipping out. Despite Trevor’s assurances that we should get the gallinules. He redeemed himself when he picked out a distant raptor, sat in the top of a pine tree, I lifted my bins and immediately recognised it as a Crested Caracara and one that could prove tricky to get during our stay. Whilst Keren wandered off to get shots of this wonderful raptor Trevor and I got great views of a stunning male Common Yellowthroat in the reed bed.
Day 4 – Tuesday 28th. February
We had arranged to meet up with Wes again this morning as he had a “guaranteed” site for the elusive and very skulking Sedge Wren at a development site in Winter Garden where he was monitoring a pair of nesting Bald Eagles (which, as it turned out, had been raided by a Raccoon the day before). I hoped the wrens were easier than Trevor’s gallinules!
We met Wes’ at the prearranged time and he immediately proceeded to regale us with what he had seen prior to our arrival. Fortunately we were able to get onto House Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel (in boring winter plumage), Blue Grosbeak (see Dickcissel) and Swamp Sparrow almost immediately, but yet again, views were brief and photographs were impossible. It was at this point that I got my most embarrassing Florida tick – Muscovy Duck, but if they’re good enough for Florida’s leading lister, they’re good enough for me!
During a short walk around the area, Keren piped-up with “what’s the little bird on the fence right in front of us?”. Trevor and I immediately got onto it – a Sedge Wren and giving great views! Wes’ tried valiantly to find us a Marsh Wren by producing all manner of pishing, squeaking and, on one occasion I’m sure, farting, but to no avail. But he was great entertainment as he told us some typical birder’s stories including one not so typical which involved him being shot by a car-jacker’s AK47 whilst he was out ‘owling’ (Wes, not the car-jacker!). This last tale prompted Keren to ask me “where the hell have you brought me?”!! Honestly, she’s such a wimp sometimes!
Trevor’s next planned site was a place called Brinson Park where we should get Snail Kite, Limpkin, Monk Parakeet (nesting by the power station) and yes, those damned gallinules.
On the way there we stopped for a bite to eat and I discovered the joys of a ‘marinara meatball sub’ at a Subway restaurant. I’m hooked!
We arrived on site and took shelter from the midday sun whilst we ate our sandwiches, during which time Trevor located for us a distinctive, if distant, Snail Kite perched on the edge of the reeds and, on a small island, a Limpkin. Now this is how I like to get my ticks! We finished our lunch and wandered off to see if we could find a “gallinule or two” and get better views of the kite and Limpkin, the latter of which duly obliged and put on a great show. The gallinules didn’t.
Whilst we were grilling the water’s edge a small party of Monk Parakeets flew overhead screeching in typical small parrot-fashion.
As we had finished with Brinson Park quite early, we decided to call in at Oaklands again to see if we could locate a Carolina Wren, but despite hearing several we could get on to any (these were as difficult as the gallinules!). Eventually, however, one put on a brief but distinctive show as it crossed from one dense bush to another (Ok, so not as difficult as the gallinules then!). Whilst at Oaklands, an elderly birder pointed out a nest box which contained a pair of Easter Screech Owls and, after a short wait, one of the birds popped-up at the entrance hole and watched us, bemused, as we scrambled for our cameras. He stayed on show for a short while allowing us to photograph him, from a suitably respectful distance, before vanishing back into his nest box.
Day 5 – Wednesday 1st. March
Keren and Trevor’s wife Jackie decided to have a girlie-day, shopping, today leaving me and Trevor to go after a particularly rare bird, Red-cockaded Woodpecker at Three Lakes Water Management Area – another drive of about 2 hours.
We set off very early in the morning just as the sun was rising and made good time to the site.
There were lots of huge caravans and Winnebagos (?) in the car park and we feared our elusive quarry would be miles away if they had any self-respect. Almost immediately Trevor located a black-and-white woodpecker which we tried our hardest to string into the target species but it turned out to be ‘just’ a Downy Woodpecker. We were shortly joined by a Canadian birder who told that he had seen “the cockaded’’ just down the track beyond the car park so that’s where we headed. Parking up on the grassy verge we proceeded to scan the scattered pines and almost immediately I got onto a woodpecker flying in from the left “this looks good” I said to Trevor, just as the bird landed atop a 50yd distant tree. We got decent but brief views of the bird and noted it’s barred back and plain white cheeks “that’s the kiddie” I said. No sooner had the bird landed than it went behind the tree never to be seen again. Still it was good enough to add Red-cockaded Woodpecker to my list!
Further along this track, Trevor picked-up a Brown-headed Nuthatch which gave great views as it fed on the pine cones 30 feet above our heads. This was closely followed by an Eastern Bluebird which landed, once again, briefly but giving great views of it’s incredibly bright blue and orange plumage.
Trevor suggested we move further into the plantation and look for Bachman’s Sparrows in an area he knew they bred. Driving up and the track we located the area, but not before Trevor almost got us stuck in a ditch trying a particularly ambitious 3-point turn! Unfortunately the sparrows weren’t playing ball, although we did get flight views of one darkish bird that Trevor thought “looked good”. But not good enough to confirm.
As we were about to leave the area for our next stop, the Canadian birder hollered (isn’t that what colonials do?) and pointed out a raptor flying overhead. “Black-shouldered Kite” I called to Trevor who was on to it in a flash. This bird looked different to the European and African birds we were familiar with and, aided by Sibley naming it White-tailed Kite, we asked the guy what it’s status was and he told us that it was the same species just with a different name. Subsequent research told us that he was wrong and that it had indeed been split and was thus, Trevor’s first tick during our stay!
Just up the road a short distance was a place called Joe Overstreet Road which, in the past, played host to a small party of Whooping Cranes so that is where we headed next.
As we crawled down the dusty track with our windows open, we heard the explosive call of a Wild Turkey which turned out to be three birds under a roadside bush. I’m sorry, but, even though I ticked them, they looked ‘plastic’. Further down this road Trevor picked-up on the mournful song of an Eastern Meadowlark, one of his favourite birds, and sure enough there it was, right at the side of the road. What a stunning bird. Duly ticked and photographed we continued to the end of the road where there was another boat ramp scarily populated by what were described to me as “genuine red-necks”! We birded the lake shore for a short while (“keep your eyes open for Purple Gallinule”) but added nothing to the list.
During discussions with Trevor I had mentioned that I would dearly love to see a Burrowing Owl. “So would I” was his sullen reply “I’ve dipped on them 3 times so far”. Fortunately, our new found friend Wes’ had given us a different site a little further south just outside a hick-town called Lorida, so it was to here that we headed. The road was long, straight and quite tedious but went through some wonderful ‘plains’ habitat on which were lots of Sandhill Cranes and Turkey and Black Vultures soared overhead. 45 minutes later, and after a minor overshoot courtesy a very dodgy map-reading/directions combination we were on Arbuckle Creek Road. On our left was a huge grazed field containing a few beef cattle which, according to the small ink spot Wes had put onto the map (gazetteer apparently is the correct word to use) was the site we should be scanning. We pulled the car over and tumbled out to view this huge flat area. Talk about a needle in a haystack! Trevor commented “I wonder how many cow-pats we will try to string into a Burrowing Owl!” to which I immediately responded “Errr…none. There’s a Burrowing Owl now!”. Sure enough, off in the distance and sat atop a small mound of sand, was our quarry. You’ve no idea how excited we were. Had anyone seen us they’d have thought we were mental! We walked 200 yds. back down the road with the scope for a better, closer look. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I walked down the road, lugging the scope, whilst ‘his lordship’ drove down the road! Anyways, we got great views of the bird as it sat surveying it’s territory until it disappeared down it’s burrow, shortly followed by clouds of dust as it dug deeper into the ground. Bonkers. During the time that the bird was out of view I started to scan the field to see if any other birds were on show and my attention was caught by a puff of dust next to a second mound of sand. Sure enough and as if by magic, a second bird popped into view. We enjoyed both birds on and off for about an hour before we had to start the long trek back ‘home’.
What a great day and double-lifer one for Trevor to boot. My obligations fulfilled, I could now relax for the rest of the week.
Day 6 – Thursday 2nd. March
We didn’t really have much of a game plan for this day, although Trevor suggested we try for the Red-headed Woodpeckers at Wekiwa Springs after a third attempt for the American Goldfinches at Tibet Butler Marmalade. On arriving at the preserve, we were confronted with the site of empty feeders which had been cleaned in preparation for an ‘open day’ planned for the following Saturday. Fortunately we were informed by a warden that she would be refilling the feeders “within the hour” so we decided to do a brief circuit of the reserve – more in hope than expectation. I thought to myself “if Trevor mentions the possibility of gallinules…..”. 5 minutes into our walk and we got into a flock of warblers. There were birds everywhere and it was a real nightmare to get onto them quickly enough. Then both of us called at the same time “Orange-crowned Warbler” which, in now traditional manner, disappeared without a second sniff despite us stubbornly hanging around for the next half hour!
We headed back to the visitor centre and the, now-filled, feeders. Trevor took up residence in one of the verandah’s rocking chairs but flatly refused to accept all offers of pipe, slippers and tartan rug! Eventually a movement up in the pines caught my eye and I located a female American Goldfinch! As it turned out this was the only individual to be seen, but at least it proved third-time-lucky, which is more than can be said for Purple Gallinule! How Trevor could sleep at night, I’ll never know.
We then headed off for Wekiwa Springs but not before stopping off for my third and final meatball sub!
The area for the woodpeckers was reminiscent of the habitat that held the Red-cockadeds and sure enough, Trevor found one almost immediately. And what a smart bird. I tried approaching it but he appeared to have a ‘30yd comfort zone’ and I only managed to get a couple of record shots before deciding it was unfair to keep pursuing him.
One bird that was on my ‘most desirables’ list was Ruby-throated Hummingbird but, despite extensive research, Trevor had been unable to pin one down. However, as part of the ‘Florida Birding’ email group he had, the previous evening, learned of an even rarer species that had been visiting an elderly couple’s feeders just down the road from where he lives. A brief phone call later and we had been, kindly, ‘granted an audience’ at 5.30pm (“that’s when he comes in”).
So we headed back to Windermere and had a bit of a late afternoon’s ‘duding’ back at Trevor’s house before heading back out the 10 miles or so down the road to Sand Lake. Some inspired directions/map-reading later and we arrived at the house and were invited into the back garden of this lovely retired couple’s house (many, many thanks Bill and Helen). We were early (5.10pm), so we just sat in the garden enjoying the late afternoon and watching the Purple Martins overhead. Just when things were starting to look bleak, Bill said “here he is” and, indeed, there he was. Bang on the stroke of 5.30pm, my first ever hummingbird. What a real little cutie and no ‘common-as-muck’ Ruby-throated this, but a male Rufous Hummingbird (much too punctual to be a female). My camera went into overdrive, as did Keren’s and, I hope you’ll agree, we got some acceptable shots. We watched him for a good half and took well over 150 photos when Trevor interrupted my excitement to point out a White-winged Dove which had just landed in a tree above his head. Now, Trevor was inordinately pleased with this bird, but in all honesty, it did nowt for me. Lets face it, when given the choice between your first hummingbird feeding not 10 feet away and ‘partial albino Collared Dove’, which would you concentrate on? Exactly.
I finished the day with the trip list on 141 species and me on 86 lifers! Still no gallinules though.
Day 7 – Friday 3rd. March
Our last full day. One place I wanted a better look at was Orlando Wetlands, so that’s where we went. Plus, it gave Trevor his last bite at the ‘gallinule cherry’.
We called in at a small corner of the reserve we had previously visited (where Keren photographed the caracara) but surprisingly, the gallinules weren’t on show.
Orlando Wetlands is a huge place, but we bravely decided to ‘go for it’ and walk the entire perimeter in the rapidly rising temperatures. We didn’t really hope to get anything new, apart from the chance of Black-bellied Whistling Duck and you-know-what, but what the hell, it’s a beautiful reserve and would give us plenty of photo ops.
Starting off on our trek, we got great views of all the usual suspects – herons, egrets, raptors and terns. Then it happened. Just as I was about to press my camera’s shutter (I forget what the bird was), my ‘hero’ Trevor casually said “I’ve got a Purple Gallinule in the scope” (he masked his relief very well). I didn’t dare believe it. Now, let’s face it, after what we’d seen this week Purple Gallinule is a bit of a non-starter – just a blue Moorhen really – but we’d built it up into such a, what’s the word? Enigma? Whatever, that I almost knocked the big man out of the way so I could see it. And yep, it was just a blue Moorhen. Some things just aren’t worth their hype. But fair play to Trevor, it was a stunning piece of birding to pick it out over the 200+yds amongst the floating blue-green vegetation.
The next bird was a real surprise. As we continued round the reserve, a nearby pair of nesting Ospreys started to call out in agitation and as I turned round to see what the fuss was, I latched onto a large owl sat atop a dead palm tree. “Barred Owl, Barred Owl” I called in panic (I only ticked it once). Keren and Trevor were just quick enough to get onto the bird before it disappeared back into the hollow palm. Nice. No photos though.
As we continued, Trevor commented that “this looks good for Marsh Wren”. I don’t know why, it didn’t look any different to any other little patch of reeds to me. 10 seconds later a very small passerine was flushed by a Red-winged Blackbird and proceeded to sunbathe out in the open. A bloody Marsh Wren! Why Trevor couldn’t have pulled the same stunt with the gallinules I don’t know! I rattled off a load of shots but the habitat, and the bird’s contorted posture as it ‘soaked up some rays’, didn’t make for a nice image.
20 yards further on and I picked up a bird that was instantly recognisable – an American Bittern. But this critter was out in the open, unlike every other bittern I’ve ever seen. He provided stunning views down to just a few feet. Another 20 yds further down the track and an imm. Black-crowned Night-heron showed briefly before slinking back into the reed bed. This was great birding.
Eventually we were on the home straight of our 5 mile hike in the blazing heat when, on a small causeway, I located a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. My 90th tick of the week, but I now had a problem. Ordinarily, I’d have used my field craft to approach the birds to get a photo or two, but there was an obstacle.
Actually, there were three obstacles. Between me and the ducks were three alligators basking on the causeway. Trevor reckoned they would head for the water as I approached and told me not to be such a big girl’s blouse. “That’s it” I thought “I’ll never hear the last of this if I don’t go for it”. So off I went, with one eye on the ‘gators and one eye on the ducks. The last thing Trevor said as I went out of earshot was “but if they do chase you, remember to run in a zig-zag. Quickly.” As it turned out, the ‘gators did dive for the water and I got a couple of half-decent shots of my last lifer for the trip.
So that was it. We had a wonderful week’s birding in the company of a great friend.
I got 90 lifers and 147 species in all, the three main highlights were the Yellow-throated Warbler in Trevor’s back garden, the pure entertainment of the Black Skimmers at Merritt Island and the magical little Rufous Hummingbird.
Thanks to Trevor and his tolerant wife, Jackie for making it a special holiday.
We owe you one.
Bugs and Beasts (many unidentified - please help)