In August 2001 and May 2003 our family holidays took us to that ultimate tourist destination, Orlando. Birding was not a high priority in their minds but was uppermost in mine, especially as it was to be my first visits to the other side of the pond. What follows will probably be of more help to a birder in a similar situation to myself, where holiday locations are based more on family requirements rather than species diversity!
Timing: August was hot and humid with thunderstorms almost daily in the afternoons. Being my first stateside visit nearly every bird was new, which made up for the fact that most were either very tatty looking post-breeding adults or drabber juveniles. May was great! The weather was hot with much less thunder activity and not so humid. Although too late for landbird migration, the resident and breeding species looked immaculate with many still singing (though this can be frustrating to the uninitiated ear!)
Opportunities: if it is to be a first visit to the states new birds come thick and fast, just being in the theme parks and around hotels etc. On our first visit we stayed at Holiday Inn Sunspree in Lake Buena Vista, we had a week without a car then hired for the second week - we found it invaluable having a car! For visiting actual birding locations per Pranty guide, I think it would be near impossible without your own transport. Try and wangle a day's birding if you're family-tied and pick half a dozen target species to track down! In August the only bird specific site I visited was Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, in May we had three weeks in a villa east of Kissimee, and being our second trip time was not so tight. On both trips I found two books invaluable, the Sibly 'Guide to Birds of North America' & the ABA 'A Birders Guide to Florida' by Bill Pranty, the latter a very useful site guide which is still relative today.
Locations: starting with the park's in general then specific sites. Disney parks - For first timers the Disney World resort is huge- the size of Breckland or the New forest! The big lake between the Ticket and Transportation Centre and Magic Kingdom (Seven Seas Lagoon) has masses of herons going to and from their roosts as well as White Ibis, Osprey and vultures. Anhinga are surprisingly widespread thermalling like raptors. Grackles are equivalent to starlings and Mourning doves commoner than Collard. Epcot is spacious and American Coot was here in May and August also here we've seen Red bellied Woodpecker and Swallow tailed Kite (top bird!).
Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge (MIWR) This is the NASA owned site, which also includes Kennedy Space Centre. For birding the Black Point Wildlife Drive is excellent for waders herons, and marsh species. This is a six-mile drive around lagoons and ponds where you don't even have to leave the car! On my first visit they were working on the road so it was closed, but in May it was open and the birding was excellent. This is a highly recommended days birding! Target birds here are Florida Scrub-jay, Reddish Egret, Roseatte Spoonbill and Black Skimmer. Take SR50 east to Titusville then north on the US1 shortly before going east on SR406 across the Indian River
Honeymoon Island (HMI), Gulf coast. We initially went to Clearwater Beach for the day, but not being very good at being beach bums, I amazingly persuaded the family that Honeymoon would be less crowded and more relaxing and, thankfully, it was and a couple of specialities were bagged! This is apparently an excellent site at migration for landbirds and certainly looked tasty. We will be back! Target Birds- Wilsons Plover, Least Tern, Gray Kingbird and Whiskered vireo. Take the I4 west to Tampa then SR60 across Tampa Bay to Clearwater then go north on US19 to SR586 (Curlew Road) and follow this west again on to Honeymoon Island.
Threelakes Wildlife Management Area (TLWMA). An early morning jaunt to this site to pick up several target birds paid off well in May with a bonus as well. Habitat of scattered pines over a vast area with large tracts of open land. Specialities Red cockaded woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Eastern Bluebird, Pine warbler and Bachmans Sparrow. Take US441 south east out of Kissimee then CR523south at St Cloud on to Canoe Creek Road for approx. 23 miles to find the entrance to your right (sign posted).
Brinson Park Although not a reserve as such, its closeness to the main tourist areas and the descent selection of species seen in May could be useful to those with very little free birding time. Target birds- Snail Kite, Bald Eagle, White winged Dove, Black necked Stilt. Drive south on US17/92 then east onto CR525 Neptune road, the park is shortly reached and is the area where the highway dissects two areas of water, the large Lake Tohopekaliga is to your left.
Orlando Wetlands Park (OWP). This is a water reclamation system east of Orlando off SR50 with a small reception area. Large open ponds with extensive fresh water marsh. target birds-Purple Gallinule, Least Bittern, Wood duck.
Tosohatchee State Reserve A large wooded reserve not far from OWP, I visited this reserve in May and found it hard work in both birding terms and driving- the tracks are of fine sand in the dry periods and it was difficult to get a saloon car to keep moving to the point that I had to turn back. Visit if you have plenty of time and a four-wheel drive.
Reference: Pranty, 'A Birders Guide to Florida'
1. Pied-billed Grebe A single on the small lake at Coronado Hotel, Disney World Resort (DWR) May 27th
2. American White Pelican 11 were still present Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge (MIWR) May15th. Mainly a winter visitor.
3. Brown Pelican Seen in Aug. & May at MIWR, Honeymoon Island (HMI) and all along the gulf coast- Excellent family fun feeding pelicans at The Pier in St. Petersburgh!
4. Double-crested Cormorant Common in Aug and May.
5. Anhinga Surprisingly common at both seasons often seen soaring likes a vulture.
6. Least Bittern A single at Orlando Wetlands park (OWP) May 15th
7. Great Blue Heron Fairly common and huge!
8. Great Egret Widespread. Good photo opportunity usually around Tom Sawyers Island in Magic Kingdom! Beware of this species at Seaworld, my wife had her finger sliced by a Great Egret stealing the fish she was about to throw to a sea lion!
9. Snowy Egret Widespread especially Magic Kingdom Lake
10. Reddish Egret Only a single in Aug but a dozen or so in May on Black Point Drive MIWR
11. Tricolored Heron Uncommon. Not quite as widespread as the egrets but seen in both periods MIWR, DWR, Brinson Park.
12. Little Blue Heron As above
13. Cattle Egret Seen in both periods but much bigger numbers in May. Abundant around Gatorland!
14. Green Heron Often seen along side the theme park attractions fish filled ponds .especially the hippos at Animal kingdom
15. Black-crowned Night Heron Only seen at Busche Gardens Tampa
16. White Ibis Common. Early mornings and dusk these birds become abundant at DWR in both periods flying to and from roosts.
17. Glossy Ibis Seen on MIWR on both occasions.
18. Roseate Spoonbill MIWR off of the Black point Drive
19. Wood Stork Uncommon. Apparently a declining species, Sea world seems to be a favoured location.
20. Black-bellied Whistling Duck A pair with downy young were seen at Brinson Park viewable from the road way on a small marshy island May 31st
21. Muscovy Duck Seen around residential lakes and ponds of which there are many.
22. Wood Duck Real wild Wood Duck were seen Orlando Wetlands Park May15th
23. Mottled Duck A speciality, take time to pick out the pure ones!
24. Red-breasted Merganser Four on Black Point Drive MIWR May15th
25. Turkey Vulture The Florida skies are rarely devoid of this or the following species at either times of year.
26. Black Vulture Common throughout.
27. Snail Kite Speciality. On both occasions we have seen this species on the Boggy Creek Air boat rides. There are two centres for this company which are both advertised, take the one that is south of Kissimee at Southport Park, which is NOT on Boggy Creek Road. Alternatively I have seen snail kite distantly from Brinson Park.
28. Swallow-tailed Kite An absolute stunner when you see your first, in August I had a single bird on Ponciana Boulevard but in May up to six singles were seen in the Kissimee area including one over Epcot DWR.
29. Cooper's Hawk Up to four seen usually whilst driving on the freeway through wooded areas, seen dashing across the road like a big Sparrowhawk.
30. Red-shouldered Hawk Seen on few occasions in both periods can be seen in fairly residential areas.
31. Red-tailed Hawk in Aug one seen MIWR and in May one at Orlando Wetlands Park.
32. Bald Eagle In both visits we have seen these on the Boggy creek airboat rides. Tip-the first ride doesn't usually go until about 0945 get there a bit earlier and enjoy some everglade-like birding before it gets too hot. Also seen from Brinson Park.
33. Osprey Common. Ospreys seem to be everywhere, if you take a trip down to Tampa checkout the nesting platforms on top of the roadside pylons.
34. Northern Caracara Speciality. A target on my ThreeLakes trip, a pair with their youngster were seen in a road side tree along CR 523 early morning May 26th.
35. Northern Bobwhite Florida race adult seen running along Joe Overstreet Rd.
36. Wild Turkey Seen both times but only on DWR land usually from the Disney buses when 'park hopping' especially early morning and before dusk mostly in Aug.
37. Purple Gallinule None seen in Aug and initially struggled in May but after first sightings at OWP they were noted at Boggy Creek airboat rides and several roadside ponds having large areas of Corkscrew lily.
38. Common Moorhen As its name suggests.
39. American Coot In both May & Aug we have had a single at Epcot on the smaller lake, with the only other sighting being Brinson Park in May
40. Limpkin Only ever seen once early morning Boggy Creek in Aug.
41. Sandhill Crane These delightful birds are both fairly widespread and reasonably tame, don't be surprised to see them feeding on roadside verges and central reservations!
42. Black-bellied Plover Seen at MIWR and HMI
43. Semi-palmated Plover MIWR in May
44. Wilson's Plover Speciality. Two seen whilst walking along the beach on HMI May 16th in Least Tern nesting colony.
45. Killdeer Common and widespread during May, not so obvious in Aug.
46. American Oystercatcher One flew down the coast HMI May 16th
47. Black-necked Stilt No suitable habitat was visited in Aug but during May breeding birds were seen MIWR, OWP, Boggy Creek airboats and Brinson Park.
48. Greater Yellowlegs On May 15th at least 100 were present on the Black Point drive (BPD) MIWR.
49. Solitary Sandpiper About six were seen from BPD in May
50. Willet Seen on both trips at MIWR
51. Spotted Sandpiper One seen Aug 8th near the Manatee Watch Point on MIWR
52. Turnstone At MIWR on both occasions.
53. Western Sandpiper Several summer plumaged birds made it a little easier to sort this species out in May on BPD.
54. Semi-palmated Sandpiper In the majority over the above species on BWD
55. Least Sandpiper At least 2 were seen very well May 15th along BPD
56. Stilt Sandpiper One of the highlights of the May trip were dozens of this smart wader along BPD on MIWR.
57. Short-billed Dowitcher Several seen BPD. Apparently Long billed is not a common bird in Florida.
58. Laughing Gull The most common gull on both trips rarely seen in land but numerous around the gulf coast and MIWR
59. Ring-billed Gull A handful of first summer birds on the beach at Clearwater in May
60. Caspian Tern Seen on MIWR in Aug and May
61. Royal Tern Seen on both visits to MIWR and in May along the gulf coast
62. Forster's Tern 2-3 birds still present MIWR May 15th.
63. Least Tern Seen at the above site at both periods, also breeding colony on Honeymoon Island and a bird seen on two occasions in May over the lake at Islands of Adventure.
64. Black Skimmer Speciality. Missed this species in Aug due to BPD being shut saw them well there in May, also seen en route between Tampa and St Petersburgh.
65. Mourning Dove Common and widespread.
66. White-winged Dove Seen only in May, and on the last day of the holiday, I seemed to struggle to see these, eventually seeing several in flight at Brinson Park.
67. Collared Dove Fairly common in and around the towns.
68. Common Ground Dove Seen on both visits to MIWR usually flying up from dusty dirt tracks.
69. Monk Parakeet A tickable exotic, these were easily located by their raucous calls at The Pier in St Petersburg and also Busche Gardens theme park.
70. Barred Owl One was heard but not seen calling in broad daylight at OWP.
71. Burrowing Owl Speciality. A major bonus, seen on Joe Overstreet Road south of Kissimee on May 26th. Previous to the holiday I had checked some birding web sites where several people had mentioned visiting this site and that the owls were thought no longer to be present there. There was one of this Floridian subspecies seen on the second- from- last main fence near the end of the road on the southside.
72. Common Nighthawk Surprisingly common and widespread at both seasons often seen during daylight hours and near more built up areas (particularly Lake Buena Vista area).
73. Chimney Swift Seen on both trips, fairly wide spread though more were noted during May.
74. Belted Kingfisher Generally regarded as a winter visitor to the southern half of Florida, one at MIWR on August 8th was either an early returning bird or a summering non- breeder.
75. Red-bellied Woodpecker The most widespread woodpecker often seen in the parks including Epcot and the Ticket and Transport centre at Magic Kingdom.
76. Downy Woodpecker Widespread in woodland areas and seen during both May and Aug. One gave fine views feeding on the end-most branches in trees at Seaworld.
77. Hairy Woodpecker I was fairly convinced that I saw one of these at OWP on May 15th but further reference to Pranty revealed that this species is quite selective in habitat and is a tricky bird to find.
78. Red-cockaded Woodpecker A visit to Three Lakes is a must for this rare species with a nesting ‘clan' at the entrance gate. Look through the scattered pines for trees with white rings painted around them then just wait from a sensible distance. I visited in late May.
79. Pileated WoodpeckerA single in Aug on MIWR is my only sighting of this huge woodpecker.
80. Great-crested Flycatcher A fairly widespread bird of wooded areas seen on both trips with sightings at MIWR visitors centre, Dinosaur World car lot (Plant City) and Toxahatchee State Preserve.
81. Grey Kingbird A south Florida speciality. At least three were noted on HMI and the urban area by the bridge to the island.
82. Eastern Kingbird Seen in Aug on MIWR adjacent to the Manatee Viewing platform.
83. Loggerhead Shrike Common. Seen on both trips, regularly noted in suburban areas and along many tree-lined sidewalk.
84. White-eyed Vireo One seen, though several heard from scrubby areas along Black Point Drive on MIWR in May.
85. Blue Jay Common. Encountered at several theme parks (Universal, Magic Kingdom, Epcot.), around villas and most wooded areas.
86. Florida Scrub Jay Endemic. Seen on both visits to MIWR mostly encountered early morning on the roadsides bordering areas with overgrown Orange orchards.
87. American Crow Noted at the theme parks and other urban areas.
88. Fish Crow Best distinguished from the above by voice, birds were seen at MIWR and on HMI
89. Purple Martin In Aug only birds seen were noted flying over Magic Kingdom early evening on two occasions. During May these evocative birds were numerous around Brinson Park, but best views are afforded at Epcot between Test Track and the main Disney store in the Butterfly garden where a colony breed in a purpose built nesting block!
90. Northern Rough-winged Swallow In May one was seen over the lagoon at the entrance to MGM and another was watched in the evening over the large 'harbour' at Disney's Boardwalk resort.
91. Carolina Wren On MIWR at both seasons, seen from the oak hammock trail and the visitors centre boardwalk. In May also seen at Animal Kingdom.
92. Blue grey Gnatcatcher Seen in Aug at MIWR at the visitor's centre and also in woodland enroute to Boggy Creeks. In May seen at Toxahatchee.
93. Tufted Titmouse Seen only in Aug in woodland enroute to Boggy Creeks .
94. Eastern Bluebird In May seen along the roadside on the way to Three Lakes and also at the reserve itself.
95. Northern Mockingbird Florida's state bird seems to be all over the place, don't be surprised to see one in your hotel/villa parking lot.
96. Brown Thrasher None were seen in Aug but in May several were noted in suburban areas and around DWR including the area in front of Disney's Boardwalk reception area.
97. European Starling Much the same as everywhere else in the world!
98. Northern Parula The mostly encountered 'wood warbler', seen in both periods at MIWR and Boggy Creeks Airboats, in May also at Silver Springs and DWR.
99. Pine Warbler A pair was seen around the Red Cockaded Woodpecker clan at the entrance to Three Lakes.
100. Yellow throated Warbler One was seen along a sidewalk at Lake Buena Vista on July 29th. Encountered on a early morning walk from the hotel it topped off my first morning in the USA!
101. American Redstart In May singles were found at MIWR at the visitor centre boardwalk and OWP both on the 15th.
102. Northern Cardinal Common and widespread. Mainly seen in tangled scrubby areas more often besides water, mostly around Animal Kingdom on DWR, on the nearest lake to your hotel.
103. Eastern Towhee Fairly widespread. If you find yourself in open woodland with scattered trees and hear a consistent , repetitive song that quits when you get close, chances are its one of these beggars! Located at MIWR, Three Lakes and Little Lake Bryan.
104. Bachmans Sparrow Three Lakes Preserve was the only place I looked, and found, this species- best seen in a large open area about ¾ mile into the reserve.
105. Eastern Meadowlark Seen in both May and Aug at MIWR, also en route to Boggy Creeks Airboats and Three Lakes Preserve.
106. Red-winged Blackbird In May these appeared anywhere near water with natural marshy edges both in the Orlando area and at the coast. In August only noted at MIWR and Boggy Creeks Airboats.
107. Common Grackle Abundant. Found in all the parks scrounging what ever they can -noisy and raucous.
108. Boat-tailed Grackle Also found at the parks but a little more tied to water with plenty at OWP and MIWR. If staying in the Lake Buena Vista area the dawn exodus of Grackles is pretty spectacular in August.
109. House Sparrow Abundant. No one feels at home with out House Sparrow.
So there you have it, do not despair if your partner and/or family have their heart set on a Disney Trip, just ensure you negotiate at least one birding trip as part of the deal!