By Jim and Megan Frost
This trip actually started in Nova Scotia, Canada, where we had a family wedding to attend. We were there from 17th to 21st. We knew the birding in maritime Canada would be pretty thin by late October, and the discovery that we could get to Florida for only £5 each more than the cost of our scheduled flights to Halifax NS made a visit to that state too good to resist.
The weather in Nova Scotia was a real "Indian Summer", although chilly at night. It was nice to see common loons and belted kingfishers at close range, but with passerine migration nearly over, only a handful of migrants were seen, Yellow-rumped Warbler being the most common.
The only new birds for us in Canada (we had been to Pelee in May 1999) were Hooded Merganser, American Bittern, and Song Sparrow. Flocks of Black Ducks, Surf Scoters and Black Scoters were moving through, but the scarcer wildfowl had not yet arrived.
We had decided not to do the long trip to the Florida Keys because of the limited time available, and the fact that the star breeding birds on the Dry Tortugas would be absent. We therefore concentrated the rest of our North American holiday on central and southern Florida.
Daytime temperatures during our visit were in the high 80s. It was often partially cloudy, but rain was restricted to the occasional late evening or overnight thunderstorm. The only pre-booked accommodation was for our first night, since we were in the low season and accommodation was cheap and plentiful.
Species seen everywhere in suitable habitat were Pied-billed Grebe, the two vultures, American Kestrel, Red-shouldered Hawk, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Mourning and Feral Rock Doves, Boat-tailed Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, American Crow, Blue Jay, Loggerhead Shrike and Palm Warbler. The warbler was on almost every rural roadside and footpath.
Site references are to the pages in Bill Pranty's essential book "A Birder's Guide to Florida" . We also used Sibley's North America field guide and many reports from web sites. The Florida bird posting site FLORIDABIRDS-L was very helpful, contact for free membership can be made through : http://bkpass.tripod.com/FLORIDABIRDS-L.htm
21st The first day was a nightmare. A 4am start was needed to drive to Halifax airport for our flight to Toronto. Our itinerary then gave us an hour to make the connecting flight to Orlando. I had queried this, but was told that scheduled flights are never late. Predictably, our flight was 30 minutes late and we were then given a hard time by the notoriously unpleasant US immigration service, so the onwards flight had to wait 20 minutes for us to board. Predictably the gate for our flight was the furthest from immigration, so we had to run the length of the terminal.
After landing at Orlando International, we used the Hertz courtesy bus to go to collect our hire car (Brown-headed Cowbird there), and promptly got completely lost en route to our motel, the Alligator Lakeside Inn on US192 in St Cloud.
We were more than a little frazzled by evening, but a drop of duty-free helped, as did a large flight of Sandhill Cranes on their way to roost over the lake. The only other species seen before dark were the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackles and American Crows. Our two daughters stayed with us the first night before pursuing their own agenda in Florida.
22nd Our original plan had been to go to the Atlantic coast, but we had to return to Orlando to recover my elder daughter's mislaid Visa card, which lost us the morning. We stayed local in the afternoon, picking up Mottled Duck and confiding Fish Crow at Alligator Lake, behind our motel. We then went to Kaliga Park (p153).
We were astonished at the tameness of most birds, with Sandhill Cranes, White Ibises, Cattle Egrets, Little Blue Heron and Tricoloured Herons all seen within yards of the busy Lakeshore Boulevard Road. Two cranes were actually foraging in a front garden. The undisturbed trees as the eastern end of the road gave us the first of many Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Pine Warbler.
Later, we drove Joe Overstreet Road (p155). Good views of American Kestrel, Red-shouldered Hawk and Black Vulture on the drive to the lake, with Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Least Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Chat on the fences and bushes. Only a handful of Sandhills were seen, but two Whooping Cranes were with them. The boat launching area on Lake Kissimee at the end of the road gave us Anhinga, Northern Harrier, a very close Bald Eagle, Glossy Ibises, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs and Eastern Meadowlark. We could not stay long due to the lateness of the hour, but the return drive up Joe Overstreet gave us a small flock of Wild Turkeys.
23rd: We used US 192 and Interstate 95 for a speedy run to Merritt Island (p176), near Canaveral. Bizarrely, a group of four Wood Storks were seen feeding in muddy area of road works on US192. Brown Pelicans were seen from the island causeway, and their White cousins shortly after on the Black Point Wildlife Drive.
The first Reddish and Snowy Egrets supplemented the usual herons and ibises, all allowing close approach by our car. The Mottled Ducks, Blue-winged Teals and American Wigeons were much more wary. Reddish egrets are fascinating to watch, with a foraging technique straight out of Monty Python.
Ospreys were common, and there was the odd Bald Eagle. The only terns still around were good numbers of Royal and Gull-billed, and Laughing Gull was the only larid here or elsewhere. The more notable shorebirds included Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, and probable Long-billed Dowitcher.
The only new passerines seen were Eastern Phoebe and Savannah Sparrow. On our return to St Cloud, we made a second visit to Kaliga Park. The usual trees turned up gnatcatcher, Black-and-white Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler, and we had a distant view of a much-desired Snail Kite.
24th: A day later than intended, we took US 192, US441 and Florida's Turnpike to Florida City. This is a 200-mile drive, but these roads are fast. The Turnpike cost about $10, a cheap price to pay for avoiding Interstate 95 on the Miami stretch. Our second base was the Best Western Hotel in Florida City (Common Mynah here).
In the early afternoon we went to nearby Castellow Hammock Park (p230) in Homestead. We had White-winged Dove, Collared Dove (!), Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Great Crested Flycatcher at the Visitors Centre, but the nature trail produced little of note except more Ruby-throats. We were told that a Painted Bunting had briefly visited the feeders earlier in the day.
Next stop was Homestead Airport. This is the small airfield just off Pranty's map accessed via Avocado Drive, not the big USAF base. We asked for permission to look for the Burrowing Owls and were amazed to be taken around each active nest site in the airfield's pick-up truck. Another meadowlark was the best of the other species here. The final stop was the Homestead power substation (p230) where the masses of Monk Parakeets were unmissable, particularly as, they build unique stick nests rather than using holes like other parrots.
25th: We spent Friday in the Everglades (p234). We had more Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the Visitors Centre and then moved on to Royal Palm (getting Peregrine en route) and the famous Anhinga Trail. Anhingas were approachable to within a foot or two, as shown in the Gosney video. We also had excellent views of American Bittern, Green-backed Heron and Pileated Woodpecker, as well as Alligator and Snapping Turtle. The Gumbo Limbo trail also at Royal Palm produced little but mosquitoes.
We stopped at the various ponds on the way through the Everglades, but water levels were high and there was little of interest, although the trees around the car parks produced American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Catbird and Eastern Phoebes.
Eco Pond, nearest Flamingo, was the best site with the usual herons, White Ibis, two Snail Kites (male and female), Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Tree Swallow and Northern Parula. Despite our luck, I don't think the Everglades are as easy a site for the kites as the Kissimee area.
The mud flats off Flamingo gave us a bonus tick in the recently-split American Greater Flamingo, Roseate Spoonbills, both pelicans, Ospreys, Willet and Short-billed Dowitcher. We had a snack outside the shop, with five birds foraging around our feet for scraps. These were two crows, a Laughing Gull, and, most impressively, two fearless Black Vultures. We make sure that we didn't doze off!
26th: We headed west along US41 to the Gulf Coast. A stop for a short walk on the start of the Shark Valley Loop (p199) gave us two more American Bitterns, Black-capped Night Heron, Cape May, Yellow-throated and Black-and-white Warblers. We later discovered that Limpkins, the main reason for our stop, are never seen at this end of the trail, but are virtually guaranteed if we had taken the clockwise direction.
A Crested Caracara flew across US41 as we headed west, and there was an impressive sight of many Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills riding a thermal.
We did the detour in Pranty through Big Cypress on CR841 and CR837, but saw little of interest other than Red-shouldered Hawks, two Chimney Swifts and a Yellow-breasted Chat.
We picked up SR29 again, and headed through the poor town of Imokalee to Corkscrew Swamp (p203).
Again the high water level was frustrating, and we failed to see Limpkin, Barred Owl or any rails. Land birds included Downy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo and Brown Thrasher.
We arrived at our third base, the Best Western on Sanibel Island (p191) in the late afternoon. The causeway islands and the hotel's beach had Brown Pelicans, Royal and Sandwich Terns, Western and Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Willet. The waders and the White Ibises all happily shared the beach with people and would allow approach to a few feet.
27th Still on Sanibel Island, we visited JN "Ding" Darling Refuge (p191). We started well with 10 Magnificent Frigatebirds flying low over our heads, presumably from a roost. There were many pelicans, ibises, spoonbills and Wood Storks, but nothing else that we had not seen before. The causeway islands added Wilson's Plover to our trip list, but not the anticipated Skimmers, Avocet or Stilt.
A second visit to Ding Darling at low tide produced little more other than yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plovers, although American Crocodile was a bonus, so we spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach and swimming in the "warm bath" sea. Two distant frigatebirds were the only real distraction, since the waders and terns were the usual suspects.
28th We took a long detour (unnecessary as it turned out) south down Interstate 75 to the Briggs Nature Centre (p196) for Florida Scrub Jay. Four were seen on arrival along the road near the centre. The nature trail produced Catbird, Pine Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and Indigo Bunting, but there was nothing of consequence from the estuary watchpoint.
Back north again on the Interstate, SR80 and SR29 to Venus Flatwoods (p167). This is now fenced off, and the view from the road added only Red-headed Woodpecker, rather than the hoped-for Red Cockaded.
We continued north to the "flycatcher ponds" (p163) produced no flycatchers, but Scrub Jays were common in this area. We also had two or three Florida form Red-tailed Hawks.
Driggers Road (p163) is not now as described in the book, and is a complete waste of time.
Our final base was the Jacaranda Hotel in Avon Park, historic (by American standards-it's as old as our house), cheap, but basic in facilities.
29th Our first site was Kissimee State Park (p155), with more Glossy Ibises on the way. This very pleasant reserve had many passerines, including Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-throated and Black-and-white Warblers. Pileated, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpecker were all seen well. The lake was too distant for the Observation Tower to give us more than a view from above of Red-shouldered Hawks.
We then wasted a good deal of the day, first of all by getting hopelessly lost on minor roads on our "shortcut" to Disney Wilderness Preserve (p153), and secondly by going to that reserve. The longish drive in produced nothing, and we were disinclined to pay to enter the section after the car park, given that it was a very hot afternoon and the similar habitat outside was giving nothing away.
We therefore drove the Southport Park road (p153), which was surprisingly good. We saw Common Ground Doves, Short-tailed Hawk, four Bald Eagles, several Ospreys and two Crested Caracaras, the latter perched conspicuously on top of the trees north of the road. The car park by the lake had the usual herons.
30th Our final day was drive back to Orlando to get the flight to Toronto, for an overnight stay with relatives before returning to Heathrow.
October is not the best month for a visit to Florida, although most of the birds we wanted to see are resident. Similarly, a longer period in the state would have been helpful. However, we had no real choice about these factors due to other constraints.
We lost a morning through no fault of our own, but the doubling back to Briggs was bad planning. We should have gone there first before Corkscrew and Sanibel. We missed Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch because our only visited site, Venus Flatwoods, was inaccessible.
We should have include Prairie Lakes or Avon Park USAF base in our itinerary to give us another chance for the woodland specialities, and omitted Venus and Disney reserves.