Florida has been defined in a number of trip reports concentrating on the South and Dry Tortuguas in the spring. It is one of the English-speaking world's favourite holiday destinations and as such the information on trip reports does not give much guidance. In fact the only October web report I have found suggests that October in Florida is not worth the effort and was only published after I returned.
This brief report gives a flavour of what can be found and also on the resources available when you are faced with a typical Orlando-based Florida break as a parent, where your children's priority is understandable a different kind of duck (and his mousy friends!)
The amount of information on the web is limited and in the states there is a tendency for it to be county based. This is fine as long as you could find a map showing where the counties are - which is very difficult! However for trip planning the best idea is still Bill Praty book on birding in Florida and the webgroups. There appear to be three web groups in Florida Birdbrains, Flabirdings on Yahoogroups and FL phorum.
The timing is important and the information is very difficult to decipher for the newcomer. The fall migration is protracted and follows the same model as the European flyway. Waders tend to be early July/August peak, Warblers from August though to mid October and Ducks are late, not really arriving until November.
Surprisingly some other groups are also late, Sparrows are very late arriving in November/Dec and this goes for American Robin. Catharus thrushes however are spread across the period.
October is also traditionally the time for something special, and ABA rarities can appear. This year was no exception with a Bananaquit seen during mid October at Fort de Soto, St Petersburg and November yielding an ABA area first of Mangrove Swallow. Both of these being in the central Florida strip.
The benefit of the mid Florida seems to be it gets a bit of everything. Flyways appear to be on the Atlantic or gulf coast with some species not crossing. The south Florida species extend to the centre of Florida and some northerly species progress as far south as central Florida, so in principle it should be an ideal place for grabbing a good mix of species
The Orlando area
The Orlando area does not immediately seem a good location except for Disney. However the cross-state I4 means that connection to both coasts is simple if a little distant. For most people staying off resort, a hire car is essential anyway and therefore days or part days birding are simple negotiations.
Typically of the states, the distances are deceptive and even short trips can result in many miles racked up.
Disney itself is not devoid of birdlife and particularly the herons, and ibis are plentiful around the site. It is also not unusual to see a Bald Eagle drifting across during a days visit. We also had Sharp shinned Hawk, Yellow Bellied Sapsucker and a host of more common passerines in the grounds, and Turkeys and Sandhill Cranes were common roadside sight.
Around Orlando there are a number of sites with the traditional pine flatwoods. These seemed very quiet at this time of year, although endemic Scrub Jays and rare Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are available. Bachman's sparrow are only visible in the spring whilst they are singing, apparently looking for them in October is a waste of time! There are various places to go, the problem with the Disney Wilderness Preserve is it is only open from 10-5, and thus not the most active dawn and dusk and there is a (small) charge. Areas around Kissimmee and the other lakes had some birds but were generally disappointing.
Also at this time Zellwood, the flooded agriculture fields so favoured in early fall, have dried out and are not worth the visit.
There are three recognised migration hot spots for local birders.
· Saddle Creek Park
· Turkey Creek - On the Atlantic coast
· Fort de Soto - on the gulf coast.
For the visitor the most convenient is Saddle Creek Park (SCP) near Lakeland, 30 mins on the I4 to the west of Orlando. Although the peak migration is in mid September (when 20+ species of warbler can be seen in a morning) there is still plenty of interest in mid to late October. This is made simpler for the visiting birder as walks are organised every Saturday morning by the local Audubon society so you can get guidance of what is about and other local information. Information from Bob Snow (BLSNOW11@aol.com) or Larry Allbright (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Two visits on the 18th and 25th October brought a good mix of late migrants including twelve species of warbler, inc Magnolia, Blackburnian and Bay-breasted, Swainson's Thrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Blue-headed Vireo. Saddle Creek Park is also an easy site for Limpkin and this species is guaranteed first thing on the morning. The park itself is a mix of pools and wooded bunds and so herons, anhingas etc are common.
I didn't visit either of the other two sites. Turkey creek is south of Merritt Island and if you don't intend to do Kennedy Space centre it can easily be incorporated with Reserve there. The mix of warblers is very similar to SCP although numbers can be better.
Fort de Soto is the premier migration site, although is involves a drive through St Petersburg and is therefore well over two hours from Orlando. This will turn up a greater mix of species and is ideally placed to capture storm blown species. As mentioned earlier the Bananquit was the big October rarity. Black billed Cuckoo and a wider mix of warblers and vireos is typical.
The site is Merritt Island. The island is shared with NASA Kennedy Space centre and therefore is close to the main tourist train. The island is large and a mix of habitats is present. The easiest introduction is the Black Point wildlife drive, which takes in the pools and saltmarsh of the Northwest of the reserve. This can easily be incorporated with a day trip to Kennedy and although October is too early for the big duck numbers it is a good introduction to shorebirds.
If your trip coincides with a big blow then a "turtle mound" seawatch may be good value, although the majority of the species are the same as on the European Atlantic shore. There is enough for a whole day here or if time is short a quick drive can pick up a good selection of waders etc in a couple of hours or so.
Most of the Gulf coast is built up and not particularly attractive as birding sites. The easiest accessible exception is Honeymoon Island, just north of Clearwater and therefore probably the most accessible from Orlando.
Honeymoon Island is a wildlife refuge and holds a concentration of shorebirds. It also has good sandy beaches and is a good location for a family day out. There is also an area of pinewoods on the island that do, apparently act as a migrant trap - although there was little evidence of this on the day I was there.
The shorebirds are visible from the causeway and the island itself and good numbers of Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher and Western Sandpiper made up the majority of the flocks. Plovers of three species, Semipalmated, Wilson's and Piping were common, and should also include Snowy. The only Marbled Godwits of the trip were found here as well. Overhead we had Magnificent Frigatebird, perhaps unusual this far north by the end of October.
Terns were plentiful with mixed flocks of Sandwich, Royal, Forsters and a few Common. There was also a large flock of Skimmers as we got onto the Island.
For a family birder, Florida is an ideal destination. The family is treated to a top tourist destination and there are easily accessible birding locations with quality species. This is not to say that it is easy to develop an extensive list. Some of the Florida specials are very difficult to find and will reward longer periods in the field. I have not mentioned Whooping Crane, Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, Short-tailed hawk and Borrowing Owl that can be added to the list with local information and are special in the US context.
October can be an exciting time to visit Florida as the exceptional can occur. Plugging in the local network should be easier than ever via the Internet. Or you can step back and just mix in few excellent days birding to a holiday your children will never forget. There are certainly more birds in Orlando than just Donald Duck.
Friday 18th October - Gatwick to Orlando
Saturday 19th October - Saddle Creek Park & around Davenport
Sunday 20th October - Disney Magic Kingdom
Monday 21st October - Davenport Lakes and Typhoon lagoon
Tuesday 22nd October - Disney, MGM studios
Wednesday 23rd October - Kennedy Space Centre & Merritt Island
Thursday 24th October - Zellwood & Blizzard Beach
Friday 25th October - Disney Animal Kingdom
Saturday 26th October - Saddle Creek Park and Disney Wilderness Preserve
Sunday 27th October - Disney Epcot
Monday 28th October - McKay Bay and Honeymoon Island
Tuesday 29th October - Lake Kissimee and surrounding area
Wednesday 30th October - Disney Blizzard beach
Thursday 31st October - Disney Epcot
Friday 1st November - Disney Wilderness Preserve, then flight to Gatwick
Pied Billed Grebe Relatively common on lakes, particularly Saddle Creek park, & Merrit Island Brown Pelican Common on both coasts. Honeymoon island allowed you swim amongst the fishing pelicans! Magnificent Frigatebird Only at Honeymoon island. Four drifted over of which one was an adult male Double crested Cormorant Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Anhinga Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Great Blue Heron Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Great Egret Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Snowy Egret Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Reddish Egret Only recorded on the two coasts and small numbers at both Merritt Island and Honeymoon Island Tricoloured Heron Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Little Blue Heron Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Cattle Egret Recorded mainly on the roost at Saddle Creek Park, where hundreds present Green Heron Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Black crowned Night Heron Only recorded on Merritt Island on 23/10 White Ibis Common on nearly every bit of water, including within the Disney parks Glossy Ibis Recorded at Merritt Island, and Lake Kissimee Roseate Spoonbill Only recorded at McKay Bay Tampa on 28/10 Wood Stork Surprisingly common, seen on most marshy areas and also on recently cleared land. [Muscovy Duck] A pair at Saddle Creek Park on 26/10 the only record Mallard Only seen within the Disney Parks feral? Mottled Duck The most widespread duck, seen in small numbers on a number of inland lakes and also at Merritt Island American Wigeon Only record was four at Merritt on 23/10 Blue winged Teal Only recorded at Merritt Island, but by far the commonest duck there with a count of a couple of hundred. Turkey Vulture Commonest bird of prey, and a common sight over the main roads throughout Black Vulture Not uncommon, but not in the same numbers as Turkey vulture Northern Harrier One female at Saddle Creek Park on 19/10, One male at Davenport lakes on 21/10 Sharp-shinned Hawk Fewer seen than Coopers Hawk, One at Typhoon lagoon on 23/10, one Disney Wilderness Preserve on 26/10 Coopers Hawk First seen at Saddle Creek on 26/10, then daily in most areas in small numbers Red-shouldered Hawk A familiar site on the minor roads sitting on telegraph poles Red-tailed Hawk Seen regularly as the species above. Bald Eagle Seen daily, with singletons often seen soaring or perched on dead trees. Largest group 5+ on a dead deer near Lake Kissimee on 29/10 Osprey Ubiquitous Crested Caracara Only seen in Lake Kissimee area with 4 on 29/10 including 2 near the deer carcass American Kestrel Not plentiful but seen on both coasts and around Zellwood in Orlando Turkey Seen regularly around Orlando, often on the roadside or field edges Moorhen Common on island lakes American Coot Present in small numbers at Merritt Island, also at Epcot in the Disney estate Limpkin Only at Saddle Creek Park, where easy to see shortly after dawn Whooping Crane Only in the Lake Kissimee area and part of an introduction scheme, two with Sandhill cranes on 29/10 Sandhill Crane A common roadside bird and often seen in small groups of 3 -10 birds. Usually they were very approachable Black-bellied Plover Common on both coasts American Golden Plover Only at Merritt Island, with c.10 on 23/10 Piping Plover Only at Honeymoon island, with c10 on 28/10 Semi-palmated Plover Common at Honeymoon Island c.40 on 28/10 Wilson's Plover 5+ on Honeymoon Island on 28/10 Killdeer Common in open areas, particulary seemed to like the wide open expanses of the Disney car parks American Oystercatcher Only seen at Honeymoon Island, with 6 on 28/10 Greater Yellowlegs With the next species, regularly seen on both coasts and some inland pools, probably slightly commoner than lesset Lesser Yellowlegs Regularly seen on both coasts and some inland pools Willet Common on both coasts Whimbrel Only seen at Honeymoon Island with one or two of the hudsonicus race Marbled Godwit Two on the causeway to Honeymoon Island on 28/10 were the only record Ruddy Turnstone Common on the causeway to Honeymoon island Sanderling Common on Honeymoon Island Dunlin Only present at Merritt Island in small numbers Western Sandpiper Small numbers were at Merritt Island on 23/10, but there were c200 at Honeymoon Island on 28/10 Least Sandpiper Small numbers were at Merritt Island on 23/10, but there were c60 at Honeymoon Island on 28/10 Short-billed Dowitcher The commonest wader on both coasts, hundreds at both Merritt Isalnd and Honeymoon Island [Wilson's] Snipe c.10 at Lake Kissimee on 29/10 Laughing Gull Common on both coasts Caspian Tern Recorded at both Merritt and Honeymoon islands Royal Tern Recorded at both Merritt and Honeymoon islands Sandwich Tern Present at Honeymoon Island on 28/10 Common Tern Two at Honeymoon island on 28/10 Forster's Tern Generally the commonest tern on both coasts Gull-billed Tern Two at McKay Bay, Tampa on 28/10 Black Skimmer A flock of c.200 were on Honeymoon Island on 28/10 Mourning Dove Common Collared Dove Common around Orlando Common Ground Dove First recorded in farmland in Zellwood on 24/10, and also common in maritime scrub on Honeymoon Island Chimney Swift Only record, 2 at Zellwood on 24/10 Belted Kingfisher Regularly seen by island pools and on roadside wires Red-headed Woodpecker Only seen at Disney Wildlife preserve, where a couple seen on both visits Red-bellied Woodpecker The commonest woodpecker, found in all woodlands Yellow-bellied Sapsucker This migrant started arriving soon after our first day with 3 at Typhoon lagoon on 23/10, 1 at Saddle Creek park on 26/10 Downy Woodpecker Common in the pine flatlands particularly around Lake Kissimee and Disney Wilderness Preserve Hairy Woodpecker One at Davenport Lakes on 21/10. Apparently quite uncommon in central Florida. Northern Flicker Fairly common, with singletons in most open woodland Pileated Woodpecker Pair on both dates at Saddle Creek park Eastern Phoebe Common and widespread. Every bit of open land had one or more Loggerhead Shrike Common around houses and in open land Red-eyed Vireo Only recorded at Saddle Creek Park where 5+ on 19/10 and fewer on 26/10 White-eyed Vireo Common at Saddle Creek Park, and recorded at Disney Wilderness Preserve Blue-headed Vireo One at Saddle Creek Park on 19/10 Blue Jay Common in woodland American Crow Not uncommon, and widespread. Not in the same flocks as Fish crow Fish Crow Common, large roosting flights were seen in the lake areas around Orlando and Saddle Creek Park. Tree Swallow 1 at Saddle Creek Park on 19/10, and 4 at Disney Wilderness preserve on 1/11 were the only records Barn Swallow 2 at Disney Wilderness Preserve on 1/11 Tufted Titmouse Only at Disney Wilderness Preserve, with 4 on 26/10 Carolina Wren A skulking resident found at Saddle Creek park House Wren Another skulking species found in scrub areas, Saddle creek Park, Davenport Lakes, Disney Wilderness preserve Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Typical species of woods and scrub throughout Ruby-crowned Kinglet One at Disney Wilderness Preserve on 1/11 Eastern Bluebird Seen on Disney Wilderness Preserve and around Lake Kissimee, a characteristic species of the pine flatlands Swainson's Thrush One maybe two at Saddle Creek Park on 19/10 Northern Mockingbird Ubiquitous Grey Catbird Ubiquitous Starling Common on the Atlantic coast and around Orlando Northern Parula Four at Saddle creek park on 19/10, three on the 26/10 Chestnut sided Warbler One at Saddle creek park on 19/10 Magnolia Warbler One at Saddle creek park on 19/10 Blackburnian Warbler One at Saddle creek park on 19/10 Yellow-rumped Warbler First recorded at Saddle Creek Park on 26/10, then in most habitats to the end of the trip Prairie Warbler One Davenport Lakes 21/10, 2 at Saddle creek park on 26/10 Palm Warbler Common everywhere Pine Warbler Common in the Pine Flatlands, also recorded at Saddle Creek park on 26/10 Bay-breasted Warbler One at Saddle creek park on 19/10 Yellow-throated Warbler 5+ on both visits to Saddle Creek Park, also recorded at Disney wilderness Preserve Black & White Warbler 10+ at Saddle creek park on 19/10, 6+ on 26/10 American Redstart Commonest warbler at Saddle Creek Park on 19 and 26/10 Ovenbird Challenges redstart as the commonest warbler at Saddle Creek park, but its more skulking habits means that it is more difficult to connect with. Yellowthroat Regular on lake edges, including Saddle Creek Park, Disney Wilderness Preserve and Davenport Lakes Scarlet Tanager 1 at Saddle Creek Park on 19/10 Northern Cardinal Common in a wooded and scrubby areas Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1, perhaps 2, females at Saddle Creek Park on 26/10 Indigo Bunting One at Saddle Creek Park on 19/10, one at Davenport Lakes on 21/10 and one at McKay Bay, Tampa on 28/10 Savannah Sparrow Common in coastal salt marsh, particularly numerous on Merritt Island Red-winged Blackbird Common on lakesides and coastal salt marsh Common Grackle Slightly less common than Boat Tailed Grackle Boat-tailed Grackle Ubiquitous