This was our second trip to Florida. I booked the trip a year in advance through Mercury Travel who are based in Essex. We booked a 3 week fly/drive with Virgin and flew from Gatwick. The total cost including insurance was £640 each. It is a lot cheaper to book last minute (look on teletext) but beware of hidden extras particularly top up car insurance. I decided to book early due to the political situation and as an incentive to save for the trip.
Our car was a Neon Dodge 4 door automatic which was just about big enough for two of us plus our luggage. When picking up your car you will almost certainly be asked if you would like to upgrade for a small extra fee. This is usually because they have no more models available in the category you booked, so refuse and insist on having your category. After a bit of a haggle your agent will go to speak to his boss, upon returning he/she will give you the upgrade free. So stick to your guns. However this usually only happens when you've booked an economy car.
We pre-booked most of our motel accommodation on the internet at www.hotels.com , this saved us time and you can get cheaper rates by booking over the net.
Food is very cheap but eating out every night can prove expensive, self catering is an option but motels don't cater for that. I worked out that hiring a motor home instead of a car would've been cheaper when weighing up the cost of motels/restaurants etc. However good food at a reasonable price is readily available throughout the state. One restaurant I would like to recommend is Johnny Leverock's Seafood Restaurant at Fort Myers beach about ¼ mile before crossing onto Estero Island on the right side of SR-865.
Booking early also gave me plenty of opportunity to obtain as much gen as possible and to plan the best possible itinerary! However there is always a little bit of guesswork and fortune involved when planning a trip and in hindsight I would probably have chosen a different itinerary.
I used "A Birder's Guide to Florida" by Bill Pranty for planning most of the itinerary. This is an excellent (albeit slightly out of date) guide. Any birder visiting Florida should purchase one. The directions and maps are excellent and very useful as is the "Specialities" section at the back of the book. The book is readily available in the UK but can be purchased in Florida at a slightly cheaper rate.
An atlas is also essential when planning your trip, the best one available is the DeLorme Florida Atlas & Gazetteer, also available in the UK at specialist bookstores (£14.95).
I had a couple of contacts (via e-mail) in Florida who also gave me invaluable information particularly Vincent Lucas from Naples (also a guide); email@example.com
A lot of information was gleaned from the internet from the following websites;
www.surfbirds.com (which links to the Florida RBA forum, very useful for common and rare bird sightings)
The weather during our stay wasn't what we expected. The whole of the US was experiencing very cold weather during much of January with cold fronts continually pushing south from the Arctic right down through Florida. On our first night in Ocala National Forest the temperature dropped well below zero and we woke up to a heavy ground frost! The cold fronts passed through very quickly and the cold weather only lasted a couple of days and then the temperature picked up until the next front which over the 3 weeks was about every 5-6 days. Despite it being cold for most of the trip it did remain dry and we only had about 5 minutes of rain during the whole 3 weeks. As you would expect with a fast moving cold front the wind often picked up which did hamper our birding on several days usually when we were looking for something that was elusive! Compared to the UK in January I'd rather have the weather we had in Florida though. The highest temp recorded was 78°F and the lowest was 18°F.
Saturday 4th January
Arrived in Orlando at 1540hrs but due to the more stringent security checks and a substantial wait sorting out our hire car we didn't leave the airport until dusk. Drove the short distance to the Holiday Inn for a one night stay.
Sunday 5th January
Got up early and headed north to Ocala National Forest and checked into the campsite at Salt Springs recreation area. Spent the rest of the day birding around the Salt Springs area. Highlights included Bald Eagle (2), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (1), Downy Woodpecker (6), Florida Scrub-jay (4), Hermit Thrush (2), Blue-headed Vireo (1), Yellow-throated Warbler (1) and Carolina Chickadee (1). That night the temperature dropped below zero! We fell asleep to the sound of several hooting Barred Owls.
Monday 6th January
Another early start to re-light our campfire and listen to the dawn chorus and then a walk around the campsite produced our first Pileated Woodpeckers (3). After breakfast we headed off into the forest; highlights included Red-tailed Hawk (1), Red-headed Woodpecker (2), Hairy Woodpecker (2), Florida Scrub-jay (8), Tufted Titmouse (6), House Wren (2) and Savannah Sparrow (2). That evening we birded the trails around the campsite the highlight being an Ovenbird.
Tuesday 7th January
Spent the day birding around the Salt Springs area and along FR-43 to Lake George. Highlights were Bald Eagle (5), Red-tailed Hawk (1), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2), Florida Scrub-jay (3), Eastern Towhee (4), Chipping Sparrow (50+) and Carolina Chickadee (10). That evening we staked out an area with an active Red-cockaded Woodpecker cluster (trees are marked with a white band about 4 feet from the ground) at the crossroads of CR-314 and FR-88 approximately three miles south west of Salt Springs. Whilst waiting we had a single Northern Bobwhite and superb views of a hunting Great Horned Owl. At 1710hrs we heard the distinctive squeaky call of a RCW as it came into roost, good views were had before it disappeared into its hole, unfortunately it was the only one we saw at this cluster. We then headed into Silver Springs for a one night stay.
Wednesday 8th January
After an early breakfast we headed west on SR-40 to the coast and then south on US-19. We stopped mid-morning at Pine Island County Park (Pranty p.114) where we had many new birds for the trip including Hooded Merganser (3), Black Skimmer (50) and Caspian Tern (2).After an early lunch we continued south to Jenkins Creek (Pranty p.116) to look for Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows but by now the wind had picked up and despite searching for a couple of hours we had no luck, however we did have our first Swamp Sparrows (4) and Manatee (1) of the trip. Heading further south towards Palm Harbour we stopped at our final birding site of the day, Fred Howard County Park (Pranty p.121). This was an excellent site for shorebirds; highlights included American Oystercatcher (1), Willet (100), Greater Yellowlegs (1), Marbled Godwit (1), Least Sandpiper (25 - very tame) and Western Sandpiper (20). We drove the short distance to our motel for the next two nights in Palm Harbour.
We had planned to visit Green Key (Pranty p.118) but missed the turn-off and due to heavy traffic didn't attempt to re-route. A female Surf Scoter had been sighted here recently.
Thursday 9th January
We got up early and headed to Honeymoon Island State recreation area (Pranty p.124 - $4). We stopped to scan the sea before crossing onto the island and had Great Northern Diver (19) and Slavonian Grebe (40). We then headed onto the Island and started off walking the Osprey trail. We had very little along the trail but it does look good for migrants. We then set off on the two mile slog to the end of the sand spit located on the North West side of the island. There weren't many shorebirds along the spit apart from a few Turnstones but at the end of the spit we had plenty. Highlights included; Wilson's Plover (50), Piping Plover (3), Hudsonian Whimbrel (20), American Oystercatcher (20) and Western Sandpiper (50). A small flock of Royal and Forster's Terns were present along with Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls. We also had a single 'Salt marsh' Sharp-tailed Sparrow and several Savannah Sparrows in the sea grass at the north edge of the protected area. After an hour or so we headed back to the car and had some lunch. With a couple of hours left in the day we drove the short distance to Dunedin City Hammock Park in the hope of seeing some rails. Despite waiting till dusk we had no rails but we did see our first Brown Thrasher of the trip.
Friday 10th January
We set out early for Sawgrass Lake County Park (Pranty p.127) where we spent a couple of hours. Highlights included; Black-throated Green Warbler (1st winter), Black-and-white Warbler (1), Hermit Thrush (3), Gray Catbird (100+) and Blue-headed Vireo (2). A search of the lake revealed nothing but the water levels did look to be high. From here we headed south to Fort De Soto County Park (Pranty p.129) one of Florida's premier birding sites. On the approach to the park about 2 miles from the drawbridge we stopped to scan a small lake on the right side of the road. We had our only Redheads (50) of the trip as well as our largest flock of Lesser Scaup (100). Other duck included several Northern Shoveler and Ring-necked Duck. We then headed to the east beach and had our lunch whilst watching our first American White Pelicans (3) and Short-billed Dowitchers (6). At the North West end of the park we scanned through the large numbers of shorebirds to find Snowy Plover (10), Wilson's Plover (2), Piping Plover (8) and Marbled Godwit (2). A large flock of Black Skimmers was present and a Reddish Egret showed well. Back near the car park we had excellent views of a roosting Great Horned Owl. From here we drove back towards the visitor centre and stopped to check around the mulberry tree picnic area for the wintering Western Kingbirds (2). We soon found them at the back of the rangers accommodation near a fountain. We also had a Monarch here plus a single Hermit Thrush. This whole area is superb for migrants in spring and autumn; we had 15 species of warbler here in October '98.
On our way to the Sunshine Skyway we had our first Roseate Spoonbills (2) on a small pond on the right side of SR-679 just before the turning for SR-682. We then headed south to Sarasota for a 2 night stay at the Knights Inn.
Saturday 11th January
After breakfast we set off to Myakka River State Park for the day (Pranty p.139). Following the itinerary laid out in Pranty's guide it soon became apparent that there weren't many birds around; in fact we didn't see a single duck (which was the reason for our visit). We went to the ranger station to check if there was anywhere else to look but he said there were very few wildfowl on the reserve this winter. We decided to cut our losses and leave the park. From the bridge (described in Pranty's guide) crossing Clay Gully we did finally see a small flock of Blue-winged Teal as well as an adult Bald Eagle but little else. From here we drove to the Ackerman Park area (Pranty p.138) to look for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. We just about checked every water body in a 5 mile radius of Ackerman Park but didn't find any! A large raft of Ring-necked Duck (c100) was present on the lake opposite Ackerman Park and we had small numbers of Shoveler, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal on the small ponds dotted around the area. We decided to return for the whistling ducks in the morning and headed off to Oscar Scherer State Park (Pranty p.138 - $3.25) to look for Florida Scrub-jays. We found jays almost immediately at the start of the white trail. Another family were encountered at the end of the trail which proved to be very tame, so tame one took to perching on my tripod and even on our heads!
Sunday 12th January
We set off early to check out Ackerman's Park again but alas we weren't destined to see any whistling ducks so we headed off for Cape Coral, to look for Burrowing Owls. We followed the directions in Pranty's guide (p.190) and soon found our target species. The whole area is being developed and it seems there are not many areas left for the owls but despite this we managed to find 4 nest sites (each site is surrounded by temporary fencing to prevent disturbance) which were occupied by a total of 5 owls. One of the sites was near an active Bald Eagle nest but the birds weren't at home.
We then drove the short distance to Sanibel Island (Pranty p.192 - $3 toll) stopping on the causeway as Pranty suggests. We had good numbers of the usual shorebirds, larids and terns on both sides as well as a single Great Northern Diver. We continued onto the island and went straight to the J N Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, voted the 7th most popular birding site in the US and it's not hard to see why. Upon arrival check out the excellent visitor centre (which puts anything we have in the UK to shame) obtain a map and then proceed to the 4 mile wildlife drive ($5 per vehicle). The drive is a one-way loop which passes through superb habitat for wetland species. Photographic opportunities are limitless; my only advice is to take plenty of film/batteries etc. Highlights were American White Pelican (20), Reddish Egret (6), Yellow-crowned Night Heron (3), Roseate Spoonbill (30), Snowy Egret (500), White Ibis (750), Wood Stork (10), Green Heron (10), Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper and a very tame Red-shouldered Hawk.
Reluctantly we left Sanibel Island and drove to Bunche beach to look for the wintering Long-billed Curlew but keeping in form with our recent luck it wasn't present during our visit but we later learnt it was there the following day! However we did have large numbers of shorebirds including Piping Plover (13), Snowy Plover (1), Marbled Godwit (6) and hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Willet etc. A Reddish Egret was also present. At dusk we left to check into our motel in Fort Myers for a two night stay.
Monday 13th January
Up early and raring to go we headed straight for J N Ding Darling NWR to beat the crowds (it does get very busy after 9am). The tide was out and although it didn't seem possible there were even more birds than yesterday. The number of wading birds was amazing, the first lagoon we came to looked like a snowstorm, it was covered with hundreds of egrets and ibis. Highlights on our morning drive were American White Pelican (50), Reddish Egret (10), Yellow-crowned Night Heron (5), Roseate Spoonbill (100), Wood Stork (1), Pintail (3), Marbled Godwit (5) and our first Great Crested Flycatcher of the trip. Soon the crowds began to arrive so we left the Island and headed to Fort Myers beach (Pranty p.194). The small lagoon here held at least 50 Mottled Duck and we had the opportunity to study and video some 1st winter American Herring Gulls (4). We then made our way to the shoreline to look for shorebirds. A group of terns drew my attention but Dad's was drawn by a grebe feeding close in offshore just beyond the terns. We watched it through our scopes and soon identified it as a Western Grebe, which to our knowledge didn't occur in Florida. A check of Pranty's guide revealed its status as a rare visitor recorded less than 10 times! We watched the bird well and I took some video of it before heading back to J N Ding Darling NWR for the rest of the day. Our trip around the wildlife drive wasn't as productive on this occasion due to the state of the tide but there were less people and we had great views of a large flock of roosting waders including the Marbled Godwits (5) seen earlier.
Tuesday 14th January
We got up early and set off for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Pranty p.203 - $8 per person). Yet another fantastic reserve which though we hadn't planned to, drew us into staying for the whole day thus missing out the Snail Kite roost on the Tamiami trail. Shortly after stepping onto the boardwalk we saw our first Painted Buntings sat in a bush behind the sightings board, we were to enjoy even better views of them later at the feeding station. On the walk to the feeding station we had Brown Thrasher and Blue-headed Vireo. We spent an hour at the feeding station enjoying close views of Painted Buntings (3 - 2 Males and 1 Female), Northern Waterthrush (1), Common Yellowthroat (2), Swamp Sparrow (1) and American Goldfinch (6).
Whilst here we learnt that there was a Louisiana Waterthrush wintering around the lettuce lake area as well as a 1st winter Summer Tanager so we went to investigate. Around the lettuce lakes we had Yellow-throated Warbler (1), Blue-headed Vireo (1), Black-and-white Warbler (1), Purple Gallinule (2), Black-crowned Night Heron (1), Yellow-crowned Night Heron (2) and excellent views of the Louisiana Waterthrush. On the way back to the visitor centre for lunch we heard a Barred Owl and had close views of Red-shouldered Hawk. After lunch we decided to stake out the feeding station again. We had excellent views (again) of Painted Bunting, Northern Waterthrush, Swamp Sparrow and our second Ovenbird of the trip down to 10 feet at times. After an hour or so we reluctantly left the sanctuary and set off on the long drive to Homestead for a one night stay at the Baymont Inn.
Wednesday 15th January
After our continental breakfast we set out for the Everglades National Park (Pranty p.234 - $10 per vehicle valid for 1 week). On the way we checked out an area (recommended by Vince Lucas) for kingbirds but saw nothing, though it was very windy and cold! About ½ mile from the entrance to Everglades NP is a small isolated square of trees known as Lucky Hammock. This was recommended by Vince Lucas and Brian Ahern as an excellent site for wintering land birds. Recent records included Yellow-breasted Chat and Least Flycatcher, but again due to the wind and presumably the near zero degree temperature we saw very little apart from a confiding pair of Painted Buntings. We decided to head into the park and started by walking the Anhinga trail. Anhingas proved to be very photogenic as did several Green Herons. American Alligators were very evident, at least a dozen floated around the boardwalk.
Unfortunately the wind was limiting observations so we went to the more sheltered Gumbo Limbo trail. A Black-and-white Warbler showed well at the start of the trail and further on we had brilliant views of adult Prairie Warblers and a stunning adult Black-throated Green Warbler. A Great Crested Flycatcher showed well but we failed to see any Brown-crested Flycatchers which had been recorded on the trail recently.
After an hour here we decided to head on down to Flamingo and check into the campsite for a three night stay. We put up our tent and made a quick trip to the store (expensive) for our lunch and then spent an hour walking the campsite and the Coastal Prairie trail. Highlights included a stunning Yellow-breasted Chat, several Prairie Warblers, Black-and-white Warbler and a female Painted Bunting. In the evening we stood on the platform at Eco pond where we had lots of Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, Green Herons, Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets and a single Great White Heron. Several Soras were heard calling and at dusk we had up to 8 Lesser Nighthawks feeding over the pond (Eco pond is the most reliable site in Florida for this species in winter).
That night we fell asleep to the sound of bellowing alligators.
Thursday 16th January
An early start and off to Eco pond to look for American Bittern but it didn't show. Compensation was provided by Roseate Spoonbill (75), Peregrine Falcon (1), Sora (1), Purple Gallinule (3), Northern Flicker (1), Black-and-white Warbler (1), Yellow-throated Warbler (1) and Painted Bunting (2).
After a hearty all you can eat breakfast at the Flamingo restaurant we headed for the Rowdy Bend trail. The mosquitos were out in force so plenty of repellent was applied and off we went. Lots of birds were in evidence all the way along the trail with the highlights being; Gray Catbird (100), Great Crested Flycatcher (20), Yellow-rumped Warbler (200), Yellow-throated Warbler (2), Prairie Warbler (6), Black-and-white warbler (2), Painted Bunting (4) but the main highlight and the bird of the trip was a very confiding Mangrove Cuckoo which showed down to 20 feet for about ½ hour approx. ¼ mile from the entrance to the trail. All our previous bad luck with other target species was forgotten as we watched this attractive bird pick its way slowly through the Mangrove Trees searching for insects. After catching our breath we drove back to Flamingo marina for refreshments and a sit down. Whilst at the marina we had great views of our first Short-tailed Hawks (2 light phase adults), American Crocodile (2) and a group of 5 Manatee.
After a good long rest we headed for the shower and then onto Eco pond for the rest of the day. Evening highlights included Lesser Nighthawk (6), Great White Heron (3), Roseate Spoonbills flying over to their roost and we almost certainly heard a Smooth-billed Ani calling from the reeds but it proved elusive and no views were obtained.
That night we saw Eastern Screech-owl at the campsite as well as a cheeky Raccoon which had a quick root around inside our tent.
Friday 17th January
Reluctantly we got up early on what proved to be a very cold overcast and breezy morning. As usual we started off at Eco pond and had excellent views of an Opossum, Painted Bunting (1), Sora (1), Purple Gallinule (2) and our only Gull-billed Tern of the trip (1st winter). After another big breakfast we went to the Pa-hay-okee overlook. From here we saw Peregrine Falcon (1), Northern Harrier (2), Bald Eagle (1) and a small flock of American Robins (75). From the overlook we drove back towards Flamingo stopping off at Paurotis pond where we had a light phase Short-tailed Hawk and in the distance a large flock of American White Pelicans (250). From there we continued onto West Lake but saw nothing on the lake except for a huge American Alligator. The Mangrove trail which starts from the car park at West Lake proved the best site of the day. Highlights included Prairie Warbler (1), Black-and-white Warbler (5) and a male American Redstart. After a late lunch we spent the afternoon birding around Eco pond looking for American Bittern but again no luck however we did have Sora (4), Purple Gallinule (1), Lesser Nighthawk (2), an early Barn Swallow amongst the many Tree Swallows and Dad had good views of the only Virginia Rail of the trip.
Saturday 18th January
After an early breakfast we scanned the mudflats opposite the Flamingo visitor centre and found a Greater Flamingo roosting amongst a large flock of American White Pelicans. We informed the Ranger and before long a small crowd had gathered, he told us that in the 21 years he'd worked at the park it was only the third Flamingo he'd seen at Flamingo! Feeling pleased at adding it to our trip list we headed off to bird the Mangrove trail at West Lake for a few hours. The early start was worthwhile as many more birds were evident compared to the previous day. Highlights included Northern Parula (1), Prairie Warbler (1), Black-and-white Warbler (4), American Redstart (2) and a cracking Worm-eating Warbler which showed very well at times. As it was quite cold and virtually no mosquitos were flying we decided to try out Snake Bight trail, it was a good decision. Highlights were; Worm-eating Warbler (1), Black-throated Green Warbler (1), Prairie Warbler (1), American Redstart (3), Northern Parula (1), Black-and-white Warbler (6) and Painted Bunting (2).
Time was passing by and reluctantly we decided to head off to our next destination, Big Pine Key some 170 miles away for a two night stay at the Big Pine Motel.
Sunday 19th January
A nice lie in was followed by another excellent and very cheap breakfast at the small café next to our motel. We then drove the short distance to Bahia Honda State Park (Pranty p.255 - $5 per vehicle). Highlights here included Magnificent Frigatebird (6), Piping Plover (8), Ovenbird (1) and Painted Bunting (1). From here we headed back south to Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge (Pranty p.255). We had very little here except for a cracking adult Northern Parula and 3 Key Deer (an endemic subspecies of White-tailed Deer). Disappointed at the lack of birds we set off for Watson Nature trail (Pranty p.256) and then onto Watson Hammock (Pranty p.257). This was also very disappointing and we were beginning to wonder whether our time in the keys was wasted. We did have Black-and-white Warbler (1) and Prairie Warbler (1) amongst the many Yellow-rumped Warblers but little else. A group of Key Deer proved to be very tame here on the road. We had some lunch and decided to have the afternoon off as there seemed little point birding anywhere else! We drove the 30 miles or so to Key West connecting with (at last!) our first and only Scissor-tailed Flycatchers of the trip (5) on the way. The afternoon was spent walking around probably the weirdest place I've ever been! We visited Ernest Hemingway's home, where we had Cooper's Hawk (2) overhead. In all it was worth a visit but once is enough! We drove back to our motel and had an early night.
Monday 20th January
With a long drive ahead we refuelled on a big breakfast at the Cracking Egg Café and set off for Homestead. We reached Homestead mid morning and had a ½ hour walk around Castellow Hammock Park (Pranty p.229). We finally had our first White-winged Doves (3) of the trip and yet another female Painted Bunting at the feeding station but not a lot else. We learnt afterwards that there had been a Warbling Vireo here on the nature trail during our stay.
Next on the agenda was Belle Glade Marina (Pranty p.204) to see the wintering Vermilion Flycatcher (a male here for its 2nd consecutive winter). Our information, kindly provided by Vince Lucas, said to look in the acacia trees behind the community centre. We did, and hey presto the bird suddenly appeared right on cue. We then enjoyed superb views of this stunning bird for the next ½ hour or so at a respectable range (if visiting this site please ask for permission at the entrance).
Pushed for time we set off for Lake Worth for a 1 night stay at Paul's Motel on Lake Worth road. Tired from a long drive we decided to call it a day early.
Tuesday 21st January
Fully refreshed and raring to go we headed off to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge (Pranty p.212 - $5 per vehicle). A walk around the short boardwalk next to the visitor centre produced our second Northern Waterthrush but little else. Opposite the Marsh trail we had Northern Rough-winged Swallow (50) plus many Killdeer. From there we walked around the impoundments enjoying close views of the usual herons and egrets as well as a very confiding Limpkin, our only one of the trip. We didn't see any Fulvous Whistling Ducks which we were reliably told hadn't occurred there for 5 years or any resident Smooth-billed Ani, but there was a lot of major management work being carried out by heavy machinery which may have been a factor.
After a quick bite to eat we made an unscheduled visit to a nearby reserve called Wakodahatchee Wetlands Reserve about 15 minutes south-east of Loxahatchee. We were told there was a couple of confiding Bobcats here to look for. Not long after our arrival we realised we should've started the day here; it was a small but excellent reserve with a good variety of birds all seemingly very approachable and extremely photogenic. However the other reason for an early visit here is to avoid the load mouthed tourists who spoilt what is a peaceful and enjoyable place to visit. Nevertheless we spent several hours here using up a lot of film and enjoying some superb views of Sora (20), Green Heron (6), Great Blue Heron (eating a live rat!), Purple Gallinule (6), Common Yellowthroat (2) and the non birding highlight of the trip a pair of very confiding Bobcats.
Wednesday 22nd January
After a good night's sleep in our motel in Lake Wales we set off early for Lake Kissimmee State Park (Pranty p.158). Highlights here included Reddish Egret (1), Bald Eagle (3), Hairy Woodpecker (1), Yellow-throated Warbler (1), Black-and-white Warbler (3), Blue-headed Vireo (1), Hermit Thrush (1), Florida Scrub-jay (4) and our first Nine-banded Armadillo's (2) of the trip. From here we drove to Joe Overstreet road (Pranty p.155). This is an excellent area for open country birds, highlights along the road included Bald Eagle (4), Red-tailed Hawk (2), Northern Caracara (3), Merlin (1), Sandhill Crane (200), Killdeer (50), Eastern Bluebird (30), American Pipit (15) and Whooping Crane (2). The Whooping Cranes are introduced in the hope of establishing a second population of this endangered species, the other population winters in Texas.
Lake Kissimmee lies at the end of the road and is an excellent site for Snail Kite. We had 3 birds (1 male and 2 female). There was very little else on the lake apart from a small flock of Ring-billed Gulls.
In the evening we drove the short distance to Kissimmee for a three night stay at the Best Western Motel.
Thursday 23rd January
An early start for the drive to Turtle Mound on the Atlantic coast (Pranty p.175). This is Florida's premier sea-watching site which as been made famous by Orlando birder Harry Robinson. It can be good in winter depending on the weather, for our visit it was overcast and a stiff North West wind made it feel very much like home! We put in ½ an hour but all we had were lots of Northern Gannets (250), Great Northern Diver (1) and our only Bonaparte's Gull of the trip (1st winter flying north). We then drove south to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Pranty p.177). Along the road leading to the Black Point wildlife drive we had 4 Florida Scrub-jays. The wildlife drive is a 6 mile one-way loop overlooking several large impoundments and mudflats. Unfortunately the wind picked up to a gusty force 5 so we didn't actually see very much compared to what we'd heard from other people who had visited the reserve. However we drove around twice and had the following; Reddish Egret (3), Black-crowned Night Heron (1), Roseate Spoonbill (6), Pintail (20), Blue-winged Teal (500), Shoveler (250), Gadwall (4), American Wigeon (500), Lesser Scaup (50), Hooded Merganser (25), Bald Eagle (2), Northern Harrier (2), Sharp-shinned Hawk (1), American Coot (2,000), Caspian Tern (6), American Robin (1,000) and Savannah Sparrow (25).
Friday 24th January
An early start for the short drive south to Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (Pranty p.156 - $5 per vehicle). We spent the whole day here in the hope of adding Bachman's and Grasshopper Sparrow to our list but the weather again was out to thwart us. It was cold and windy for most of the day and there weren't many birds moving around until the afternoon when it finally started to warm up! Highlights throughout the day included; Bald Eagle (2), Northern Harrier (1), Red-tailed Hawk (1), Northern Bobwhite (30), Sandhill Crane (50), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2), Pileated Woodpecker (1), Eastern Bluebird (10), Hermit Thrush (1), Pine Warbler (30), American Pipit (4) and the best birds of the day were 2 very confiding Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, which fed noisily along the Florida Scenic trail approximately 100 yards from the entrance to Prairie Lakes (see map Pranty p.155).
Saturday 25th January
Our final day was left for relaxing before the flight home; our last bird was from the departure lounge, an Osprey.
CONCLUSION & RECOMMENDATIONS
Our trip was excellent and over the three weeks we totalled a respectable 174 species of which six are established exotics/introduced (Rock Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Starling, Monk Parakeet, House Sparrow and Whooping Crane) and two were heard only records (Barred Owl & Smooth-billed Ani).
In hindsight we could have seen at least another 10 species but most of those we'd seen on our previous trip (Brown-headed Cowbird, Wild Turkey..).
A visit at anytime of the year will produce good numbers of birds but January to March are the best months and will produce the highest number of species (Florida is unique for having a higher number of species during winter than at any other time of year).
We will certainly be visiting Florida again as there are one or two species we didn't see (mainly sparrows). If I was to recommend a two week trip itinerary then it would be as follows; Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee area (three days), Fort Myers to Fort De Soto area (four days) and Everglades NP (seven days).
The Everglades in winter should not be underestimated Vincent Lucas told us he's had 20 species of warbler in the park in January.
If visiting in Spring and Autumn then a visit to Fort De Soto is a must, it is a superb all round site for land and shorebirds. Other reserves which are well worth visit include J N Ding Darling NWR, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Bunche beach, Fred Howard County Park, Wakodahatchee Wetlands Reserve, Three Lakes WMA, Lake Kissimmee SP and Oscar Scherer SP.
However avoid the Everglades between April and November as the Mosquitos can be horrendous. Our visit in October was very uncomfortable, even the best repellent only lessened the misery.
Bill Pranty's "A Birder's Guide to Florida" contains all the information you need to plan a successful trip. The DeLorme Florida Atlas & Gazetteer is also well worth buying . If you do visit the Florida RBA page on Surfbird.com then each item of bird news usually has a reference to either of these publications.
If like me you are a keen photographer then take plenty of film, to be honest I could have taken twice as many shots as I did. The best reserves for photography were J N Ding Darling NWR, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Everglades NP and Wakodahatchee Wetlands Reserve (especially for Sora).
If you require any more information then do not hesitate to contact me.
11 RNSSS Cottages
Dungeness Bird Observatory
I would like to thank my Dad (Alan Wraithmell) for being a great companion and Vincent Lucas, Brian Ahern and Byron Bratlie for there help and information.
All common and scientific names used in this list follow those used in "The North American Bird Guide" written by David Sibley.
Common LoonGavia immer A total of 22 birds were seen at three different sites with a maximum count of 19 seen from the causeway leading to Honeymoon Island.
Horned GrebePodiceps auritus The only record was of c40 birds seen from Honeymoon Island.
Pied-billed Grebe Podiymbus podiceps Common.
Western GrebeAechmophorus occidentalis A single found close inshore off Fort Myers beach was a surprising but welcome addition to our list. There have been less than 10 accepted records of this species in Florida.
American White PelicanPelecanus erythrorhynchos Locally common and seen in good numbers at several sites with a maximum of 250 over Cape Sable in the Everglades National Park.
Brown PelicanPelecanus occidentalis Common.
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens Our only record was of 6 birds flying over Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys.
Double-crested CormorantPhalacrocorax auritus Very common.
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga Common.
Northern GannetMorus bassanus A large flock of about 250 was watched feeding off Turtle Mound.
Great Blue HeronArdea herodias Common in small numbers at most sites. The only white morph birds we saw were in the Everglades National Park, unfortunately we didn't see any intermediate morph birds (aka Wurdemann's Heron).
Great Egret Ardea alba Very common.
Snowy EgretEgretta thula Very common.
Reddish EgretEgretta rufescens A total of 24 birds (all dark morph) were seen at seven sites with a maximum of 10 at J N Ding Darling NWR.
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor Very common and the most vocal of all the wading birds.
Little Blue HeronEgretta caerulea Very common.
Cattle EgretBubulcus ibis Common.
Green Heron Butorides virescens Common.
Black-crowned Night HeronNycticorax nycticorax A total of only three records (all singles) were noted during the trip. Single adults were noted at Corkscrew Swamp and Loxahatchee NWR and a 1st winter was noted at Merritt Island NWR.
Yellow-crowned Night HeronNyctanassa violacea A total of 10 birds were noted at two sites with a maximum of five noted at J N Ding Darling NWR.
White Ibis Eudocimus albus Very common.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus Locally common at several sites particularly J N Ding Darling NWR and Everglades NP.
Roseate SpoonbillAjaia ajaja Locally common particularly at J N Ding Darling NWR and Everglades NP. The maximum count was about 100 at J N Ding Darling NWR.
Wood Stork Mycteria americana Locally common seen at eight sites throughout our trip.
(American) Greater FlamingoPhoenicopterus ruber ruber A single adult was watched well from (appropriately) the Flamingo Visitor Centre in the Everglades NP.
MallardAnas platyrhynchos Several were seen on the trip.
Mottled DuckAnas fulvigula Seen throughout the trip in suitable habitat.
Gadwall Anas strepera The only record of the trip involved four males at Merritt Island NWR.
Northern PintailAnas acuta Two records involving three females at J N Ding Darling NWR and 20 birds at Merritt Island NWR.
American WigeonAnas americana Our only record concerned a good sized flock of 500 birds at Merritt Island NWR.
Northern ShovelerAnas clypeata Three records with a maximum of 250 at Merritt Island NWR.
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors Common.
Green-winged Teal Anas crecca Surprisingly our only records concerned six at Ackerman Park and two at Loxahatchee NWR.
Redhead Aythya americana Our only record concerned a small flock of 50 birds on a small lake alongside SR-679 which leads to Fort De Soto County Park.
Ring-necked DuckAythya collaris Three records with the maximum count involving c100 birds on a small lake opposite Ackerman Park.
Lesser ScaupAythya affinis Again only three records the maximum count being c100 birds on the same small lake that the Redheads were observed.
Hooded MerganserLophodytes cucllatus Two records; three were noted at Pine Island County Park and a small group of 25 was noted at Merritt Island NWR.
Red-breasted MerganserMergus serrator Common at Honeymoon Island. Also seen from Pine Island County Park and Sanibel Island.
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis Our only record concerned a single male seen from the car on a small lake somewhere along the SR-40 on our way to the Gulf Coast.
Turkey VultureCathartes aura Very common.
Black VultureCoragyps atratus Very common.
Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus A total of 11 birds were seen at four sites with a maximum of five birds at the Everglades NP.
Snail KiteRostrhamus sociabilis The only record was of three birds hunting over the margins of Lake Kissimmee at the end of Joe Overstreet road.
Sharp-shinned HawkAccipter striatus Only two birds were seen during the trip, one at Wakodahatchee WR and one hunting American Robins at Merritt Island NWR.
Cooper's Hawk Accipter cooperii Two birds were seen well over Key West.
Red-shouldered HawkButeo linaetus Very common.
Short-tailed Hawk Buteo brachyurus A total of four birds were seen. two adults circled over Flamingo Marina and 1 adult over Paurotis pond at the Everglades NP. The final bird, an adult, was seen over Loxahatchee NWR. All were light phase birds.
Red-tailed HawkButeo jamaicencis Only eight birds were noted during the trip as follows; two at Ocala NF, two at Everglades NP, one at Loxahatchee, two at Lake Kissimmee SP and one at Three Lakes WMA.
Bald EagleHaliaeetus leucocephalus A total of 31 birds were seen throughout our stay. The maximum day count was five in the Salt Springs area, Ocala NF.
OspreyPandion haliaetus Very common particularly along the Gulf coast.
Northern CaracaraCaracara cheriway Our only record involved three birds along Joe Overstreet road.
Merlin Falco columbarius Two records involving singles at Everglades NP and Joe Overstreet road.
American Kestrel Falco sparverius Very common particularly south of Orlando.
Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus Two records; a male over Eco pond and a large female over the Pa-hay-okee overlook in the Everglades NP.
Northern BobwhiteColinus virginianus A single was flushed in Ocala NF and 30 were flushed from the trail leading from Parker Slough in the Three Lakes WMA.
Purple Gallinule Porphyrula martinica A total of 13 birds were logged as follows; two at Corkscrew Swamp, six at Eco pond in the Everglades NP and five at Wakodahatchee WR.
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Very common.
American CootFulica americana Common. The maximum count was 2,000 at Merritt Island NWR.
Virginia RailRallus limicola The only record was of a single at Eco pond in the Everglades NP.
SoraPorzana carolina A total of 25 birds were seen with the maximum count being 20 at Wakodahatchee WR, where they were very confiding.
Limpkin Aramus guarauna A single was watched very well at Loxahatchee NWR. Unfortunately it was our only record.
Whooping CraneGrus americana Two Adults were watched from Joe Overstreet road. An introduction scheme is underway in Florida to establish a second population of this endangered species.
Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis Locally common particularly on the farmland between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee. The maximum count was of 200 birds in the Joe Overstreet road area.
Black-bellied PloverPluvialis squatarola Very common.
Piping PloverCharadrius melodus A total of 32 birds were seen as follows; three at Honeymoon Island, eight at Fort De Soto CP, 13 at Bunche Beach and eight at Bahia Honda State Park.
Semipalmated PloverCharadrius semipalmatus Very common.
Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus A total of 11 birds; 10 at Fort De Soto CP and a single at Bunche beach.
Wilson's PloverCharadrius wilsonia Only recorded at two sites; at least 50 were present at Honeymoon Island and two at Fort De Soto CP.
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus Very common.
American OystercatcherHaemotopus palliatus Seen in small numbers at Honeymoon Island, Fred Howard County Park and Fort De Soto County Park. The biggest count was of 20 roosting in a lagoon east of the sand spit at Honeymoon Island.
Greater YellowlegsTringa melanoleuca Common, recorded at most sites near to or on the coast usually involving one to six birds.
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes Locally common. Recorded at three sites as follows; 50+ at J N Ding Darling NWR, 10 at Loxahatchee NWR and 10 at Merritt Island NWR.
WilletCatoptrophorus semipalmatus Very common on the coast.
Spotted SandpiperActitis macularia Locally common and recorded in small numbers at J N Ding Darling NWR, Everglades NP and Three Lakes WMA.
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus The only record concerned 20 birds at the end of the sand spit on Honeymoon Island. They were of the American race (aka Hudsonian Whimbrel) lacking the obvious upper white rump of the European race.
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa Locally common on the Gulf coast and recorded as follows; one at Fred Howard CP, two at Fort De Soto CP, six at Bunche beach and five at J N Ding Darling NWR.
Ruddy TurnstoneArenaria interpres Common along the Gulf coast.
Red Knot Calidris canutus Common along the Gulf coast.
SanderlingCalidris alba Very common along the coast.
Dunlin Calidris alpina Very common throughout.
Western SandpiperCalidris mauri Very common particularly along the Gulf coast.
Least SandpiperCalidris minutilla Very common throughout and often confiding.
Short-billed DowitcherLimnodromus griseus Very common along the Gulf coast particularly at Fort De Soto CP.
Common SnipeGallinago gallinago13 were recorded during the trip with six at Joe Overstreet road being the maximum count. All records were of the American race (aka Wilson's Snipe) having completely dark under wing and lacking obvious white tips to the secondaries.
Bonaparte's GullLarus philadelphia Our only record concerned a 1st winter bird which flew north past Turtle Mound.
Laughing GullLarus atricilla Impossible to miss.
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis Very common and seen throughout. However on our previous trip in October '98 we only saw a single bird.
Herring GullLarus argentatus Common in small numbers and seen throughout the trip at several sites, mainly along the Gulf coast. All records concerned the American race smithsonianus.
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia Seen in small numbers throughout the trip mainly along the Gulf coast at Everglades NP. The maximum count was of 10 birds roosting on the mudflats viewable from the Flamingo visitor centre.
Royal TernSterna maxima Very common.
Sandwich TernSterna sandvicensis Recorded at three sites in small numbers, Sanibel causeway, Fort Myers beach and Merritt Island NWR.
Forster's TernSterna forsteri Common in small numbers mainly along the Gulf coast particularly at Honeymoon Island and Fort De Soto CP.
Mourning DoveZenaida macroura Very common.
White-winged DoveZenaida asiatica Only three birds were seen during the trip (didn't look hard enough!) at Castellow Hammock Park in Homestead.
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto Very common seen throughout the trip.
Common Ground DoveColumbina passerina Very common.
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia Unfortunately.
Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus Several were seen in the St. Petersburg area. The only Psittacid we bothered to look at and identify.
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor A single was watched at close range on the Rowdy Bend trail in the Everglades NP. One of the highlights of the trip.
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani A single was heard calling from the reeds at Eco pond but no views were obtained.
Barn Owl Tyto alba A single flew across the road in front of our car at dusk whilst driving past Eco pond.
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus Two records involving single birds; one was watched for ½ hour hunting from tree to tree in the Salt Springs area of Ocala NF. The other record was of a single roosting near the car park at the North West end of Fort De Soto CP.
Barred Owl Strix varia Several were heard throughout the trip especially at Salt Springs Recreation area but we failed to see any.
Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia The only record involved five birds scattered around the Cape Coral area.
Eastern Screech-owlOtus asio Several heard throughout the trip but our only sightings were at the campsite at Flamingo in Everglades NP.
Lesser NighthawkChordeiles acutipennis Seen on three consecutive nights at Eco pond involving totals of eight, six and two birds respectively. One of the trip highlights.
Belted KingfisherCeryle alcyon Very common particularly along the Florida Keys.
Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus Incredibly we only managed to see two birds during the whole trip, along FR-86 in Ocala NF.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus Very common and impossible to miss.
Yellow-bellied SapsuckerSphyrapicus varius 15 birds seen during the trip, the maximum count was of four birds at Corkscrew Swamp.
Downy WoodpeckerPicoides pubescens A total of 17 birds throughout our stay with a maximum count of six at Ocala NF.
Hairy WoodpeckerPicoides villosus Only three birds seen at two sites; two at Ocala NF and one at Lake Kissimmee SP.
Red-cockaded WoodpeckerPicoides borealis Two records involving three birds. A single was well watched at Ocala NF and two showed very well at Three Lakes WMA. One of the highlights.
Northern FlickerColaptes auritus Amazingly we only managed a single bird during the trip, at Eco pond. Was probably the commonest woodpecker (apart from Red-bellied) on our October '98 trip.
Pileated WoodpeckerDryocopus pileatus We managed to see a total of 11 birds during the trip. The highest site count was three at Ocala NF.
Eastern PhoebeSayornis phoebe Common, seen at most sites.
Vermilion FlycatcherPyrocephalus rubinus A stunning adult male showed well at Belle Glade Marina. There have been at least six birds wintering in Florida this year, this particular one was here for it's second consecutive winter.
Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus Common in the southern half of the peninsula particularly in the Everglades where our maximum count was of 20 on the Rowdy Bend trail.
Western KingbirdTyrannus verticalis Unfortunately we only saw two birds during the trip both at Fort De Soto CP.
Scissor-tailed FlycatcherTyrannus forficatus Only five birds seen during the trip all on the Lower Keys perched on wires along US-1.
Loggerhead ShrikeLanius ludovicianus Common.
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus Common in small numbers throughout the trip.
Blue-headed Vireo Vireo solitarius A total of eight birds seen during the trip as follows; three in Ocala NF, two at Sawgrass Lake CP, one at Myakka River SP and two at Everglades NP.
Blue JayCyanocitta cristata Very common and very vocal.
Florida Scrub-jay Aphelocoma coerulescens A total of 31 birds seen at four sites; 15 were found in Ocala NF, eight showed very well at Oscar Scherer SP, four at Lake Kissimmee SP and four at Merritt Island NWR.
American CrowCorvus brachyrhynchos Very Common.
Fish Crow Corvus ossifragus Common.
Northern Rough-winged SwallowStelgidopteryx serripennis The only record was of 50 feeding over the impoundments at Loxahatchee NWR.
Tree SwallowTachycineta bicolor Very common. The largest count was of 2,500 feeding over agricultural land south of Lake Wales on SR-60.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Only two birds seen during the trip, singles at Eco pond and Belle Glade Marina.
Tufted TitmouseBaeolophus bicolor A total of 17 birds seen at three sites; 12 at Ocala NF, one at Corkscrew Swamp and four at Lake Kissimmee SP.
Carolina ChickadeePoecile carolinensis Our only records were in Ocala NF, the biggest count was of 10 on a trail off US-19 north of Salt Springs.
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus Common.
House Wren Troglodytes aedon Only four birds were seen, three in Ocala NF and one at Sawgrass Lake CP.
Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula Very common in mixed woodland.
Blue-gray GnatcatcherPolioptila caerulea Very common.
Eastern BluebirdSialia sialis The only birds we saw were in the Three Lakes WMA, Joe Overstreet road and along SR-523. They were very common around these areas.
American RobinTurdus migratorius Very common often in large flocks. The biggest count was 1,500 at Merritt Island NWR.
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus A total of 18 birds were seen during the trip most of which were in Ocala NF. Also seen at Sawgrass Lake CP, Fort De Soto CP, Everglades NP and Three Lakes WMA.
Gray CatbirdDumetella carolinensis Very common particularly at Sawgrass Lake CP, Corkscrew Swamp and Everglades NP.
Northern MockingbirdMimus polyglottos Very common.
Brown ThrasherToxostoma rufum Common in small numbers particularly in the Everglades NP.
European StarlingSturnus vulgaris Very common unfortunately.
American PipitAnthus rubescens A total of 19 birds were seen on two dates; 15 along Joe Overstreet road and four on the boat ramp at Lake Jackson (Three Lakes WMA).
Northern ParulaParula americana Three records all involving single birds; a 1st winter along the Mangrove trail in Everglades NP, a 1st winter along the Snake Bight trail also Everglades NP and a superb adult at Key Deer NWR, Big Pine Key.
Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata Very common at every site visited. All birds seen were probably Myrtle's. Responds very well to pishing.
Black-throated Green WarblerDendroica virens A total of three birds seen as follows; a 1st winter showed well at Sawgrass Lake CP, a superb adult male showed well along the Gumbo Limbo trail in Everglades NP and another adult male showed well along Snake Bight trail also in Everglades NP.
Prairie WarblerDendroica discolor Common in small numbers in the southern half of the state especially in Everglades NP.
Palm WarblerDendroica palmarum Very common.
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus Locally common in Pine-woods particularly Ocala NF and Three Lakes WMA.
Yellow-throated WarblerDendroica dominica A total of seven birds were noted as follows; singles at Ocala NF, Fred Howard CP, Corkscrew Swamp and Lake Kissimmee SP and three were seen during our stay in Everglades NP.
Worm-eating WarblerHelmitheros vermivora Singles were noted along the Mangrove and Snake Bight trails, Everglades NP.
American RedstartSetophaga ruticilla Our only sightings were of six birds in the Everglades NP.
Black-and-white WarblerMiniotilla varia A total of 29 birds seen during the visit at four sites. A total of 21 birds were noted during our stay in the Everglades NP.
OvenbirdSeiurus aurocapillus Singles were noted at Ocala NF, Corkscrew Swamp and Bahia Honda State Recreation Area.
Northern WaterthrushSeiurus noveboracensis Two birds were seen; one was very confiding at Corkscrew Swamp and another showed briefly along the board walk at Loxahatchee NWR.
Louisiana WaterthrushSeiurus motacilla A single showed very well at Corkscrew Swamp.
Yellow-breasted ChatIcteria virens A single 1st winter of the eastern form showed very well at times (but was generally very elusive) along the Coastal Prairie trail, Everglades NP.
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas Common in swampy areas particularly in Everglades NP.
Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalis Very common.
Painted BuntingPasserina ciris A total of 19 birds were noted as follows; two males and one female at Corkscrew Swamp, one male and one female at Lucky Hammock, three males and nine females at Everglades NP, a female at Bahia Honda SP and a female at Castellow Hammock park.
Eastern Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus Locally common in mixed woodland especially Ocala NF and Three Lakes WMA.
Chipping SparrowSpizella passerina The only sightings were in Ocala NF where it was common.
Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow Ammodramus caudacutus A single was watched well at Honeymoon Island.
Savannah SparrowPasserculus sandwichensis The commonest and most widespread sparrow observed.
Swamp SparrowMelospiza georgiana Eight birds were noted during the trip as follows; four at Jenkins Creek, two at Corkscrew Swamp, one at Everglades NP and one at Three Lakes WMA.
Eastern MeadowlarkSturnella magna Locally common, observed in small numbers in Everglades NP and often seen whilst driving through agricultural areas.