By Stefan Stürup
This is a birding trip report from my visit to Coastal Georgia and Florida in December 2003 - January 2004. The trip was a combined family vacation (wife and 4 children), business and birding trip in that order, so it is not a bird trip report, but hopefully describes how some birding can be combined with a "normal" family vacation.
I have been to Florida on three previous occasions and had a pretty good idea about the places I would like to visit and the target birds I hoped to find. I planned to visit a few random sites in Georgia, the Orlando Area (Disney World as the family attraction), Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys. The eight target birds were: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Limpkin, Northern Caracara, Painted Bunting, White-crowned Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani, Whooping Crane and Fulvous Whistling Duck.
Most of the locations I visited can be found in Bill Pranty's: "A Birder's Guide to Florida" from 1997 (American Birding Association), which I again found to be a very reliable birding resource.
December 22nd - Fort McAllister State Historic Park (Georgia Colonial Coast Birding Trail site).
A beautiful wooded park surrounded by marshes and water, it has an interesting exhibition on this civil war fort and provided good songbird birding in the fort and park, which is a well-known breeding site for Painted Bunting, which I didn't find.
Highlights: Great Egret, Royal Tern, Forster's Tern, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and Ovenbird.
December 23rd - Jekyll Island (Georgia Colonial Coast Birding Trail site)
A good beach and marsh site that provided a good mix of birds, also the former summer residence of the Rockefeller and other famous American families (impressive housing!). Jekyll Island has potential for a lot more birds, but I only had a few hours here for birding.
Highlights: Osprey, Bald Eagle, Anhinga, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Whimbrel, Willet, Cattle Egret, White Ibis, Woodstork, Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, Black Skimmer, Tree Swallow, Fish Crow, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ovenbird.
December 25th - Lake Tohopekaliga from Brinson Park, Kissimmee (Pranty p. 152)
I also visited this site in 2000 and it is a great place for wading birds, waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes and possibly also Snail Kite (saw one in 2000, but not this time). Fulvous Whistling Duck should also be a resident here, but apparently difficult to find as I now after two visits still have not seen it!
Highlights: American White Pelican, Blue-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Green-winged Teal, Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Woodstork, Sandhill Crane (hundreds), Moorhen, American Coot (thousands), Monk Parakeet, Palm Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler.
December 26-29th - Disney World (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot Center and Magic Kingdom again).
We also visited Disney World in 2000 in mid-January which is a lot less crowded than between Christmas and New Years, this time we had to leave Magic Kingdom on the 29th, simply because there was so many people we couldn't move! Disney World is not a birding hot spot, but four days of casual birding produced 44 species.
Highlights: Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, Bald Eagle, Sandhill Crane, Woodstork, Loggerhead Shrike, and Gray Catbird
December 30th - St Cloud area (Pranty p. 154)
The Florida prairie south of Kissimmee is a reliable area for Northern Caracara, re-introduced Whooping Cranes and Red-cockaded Woodpecker. We drove south from Kissimmee on Rt. 523, which offered good birding (e.g. Wild Turkey, raptors and wading birds). The first stop was Joe Overstreet Rd, an unpaved road that ends at a fish camp overlooking Lake Kissimmee. Along the road hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and many Cattle Egrets were found plus 3 gorgeous Whooping Cranes (2 adults and 1 juvenile) in a small wet area very close to the road, beautiful birds. I later corresponded with Marty Folk, Florida Fish and Wildlife, who told me that in this particular Whooping Crane family the male was released on December 12th 1995, the female on April 20th 1994 and the juvenile was the 3rd Whooping Crane to successfully fledge from the non-migratory re-introduced Whooping Crane population in Central Florida (approx. 90 birds). At the fish camp were many wading birds plus 2 Northern Caracaras and an adult male Snail Kite.
Highlights: Whooping Crane, Northern Caracara, Snail Kite, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Turkey, Sandhill Crane, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork, Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson's Snipe, Herring Gull, Anhinga, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Palm Warbler, Savannah Sparrow
On the way further south we stopped shortly a few times in the Three Lakes WMA to look for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers around the marked nesting trees (painted with a white band), but we didn't find any, they are presumably easier to find around dawn or dusk.
December 31st - Everglades National Park (Pranty p. 234)
We followed Rt 9336 into Everglades National Park and stopped at Anhinga Trail, Mahogany Hammock, Mrazek Pond and Eco Pond.
Due to the generally high water level in the Everglades this time a year, there were relatively few birds along the Anhinga trail, but I did get very good looks a Yellow-crowned Night-herons and Purple Gallinules plus a few songbirds: Ovenbird, Palm Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Red-winged Blackbird.
Birds were practically absent along the Mahogany Hammock trail except a few Mockingbirds, Great Egrets, Palm Warblers and a Red-shouldered Hawk. I had hoped for White-crowned Pigeon here, but no luck. Anyway it is a beautiful trail and it is a strange feeling suddenly to be in a tropical hardwood forest in the middle of the Everglades.
Mrazek Pond hosted many birds mainly waterfowl (Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail and Pied-billed Grebe) and Wading birds (Black-crowned Night-heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret and Great Egret).
Eco Pond was amazing, within the first 15 min I found first an adult Scissor-tailed Flycatcher then a female Painted Bunting together with a 1st year male Indigo Bunting, and the good birds continued with excellent sightings of at least 2 Soras, overflying Roseate Spoonbills, Purple Gallinules, many Egrets and herons (include. Great Blue "White" Heron) and a few warblers (Com. Yellowthroat and Palm Warblers). Since it was New Years Eve and we didn't want just to go back to our hotel, we decided to have dinner at the Flamingo Lodge restaurant. We had an excellent dinner while watching the sunset over the Mexican Gulf, after the dinner there was a New Years party with an 80's DJ, great fun. Around 8pm I visited the birding platform at Eco Pond again and was lucky to hear Lesser Nighthawk and a Barred Owl, with 3 new lifers on the last day of the year, I returned to the New Year party to celebrate.
January 1-4, Florida Keys
During our stay on the Florida Keys we stayed at the motel at the KOA campground on Fiesta Key in the middle of the keys, which makes it a good starting point for day trips both south and north. The campground is highly recommendable, with excellent service, a good pool area, a small marina and good birding in and around the campground with Frigatebirds seen daily, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Common Myna, White-winged Dove, Collared Dove (probably the most common bird on the keys!!), Yellow-throated Warbler, Palm Warbler, Osprey, Peregrine, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Brown Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Laughing Gull and many more.
A short visit to Ohio Key intertidal Lagoon (Pranty p. 255) at high tide on January 2nd produced a large number of shorebirds, most numerous was Short-billed Dowitcher (approx. 500) followed by Black-bellied Plover, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Spotted Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper plus a few Reddish Egrets.
Earlier in the day we spend a few hours on Grassy Key visiting the Dolphin Research Center, which in addition to entertaining Dolphin shows produced some good birds with Frigatebirds, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Yellow-crowned Night-heron and finally a single White-crowned Pigeon. I must have scanned through thousands of Collared Doves and Rock Doves before I finally found this bird, which perched for 10 min on a wire before it disappeared into the treetops again.
On January 3rd I walked the two mile nature trail at Long Key State Recreation Area (Pranty p.249) that meanders through Mangroves, Hardwood Hammocks and Coastal Areas, there were very few songbirds (only Mockingbirds), but many shorebirds: Short-billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson's Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper and Western Sandpiper plus a few Egrets, Heron and Ibises.
On January 4th we visited John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo (Pranty p. 248) primarily to spend time on the beach and to take the glass-bottom boat out to the coral reef. The first bird sighted was a light phase Short-tailed Hawk soaring over the woods with a few Turkey Vultures, later it was joined by two dark phased Short-tailed Hawks. The glass-bottom boat trips was interesting with many fish (including Barracudas) and beautiful coral reefs, I had hoped for a few pelagic birds, but did not find any, however there were many terns and Gulls: Royal Tern, Caspian Tern, Forster's Tern, Sandwich Tern, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull and Ring-billed Gull. The beginning of the boat trips goes slowly through the mangroves and provided good looks at many wading birds: Great Blue "White" Herons, Great Egret, White Ibis, Tricolored Heron and Brown Pelican.
January 4-11, Ft. Lauderdale
We stayed at the Wyndham Resort where I attended a chemistry conference. Our room overlooked the golf course, which together with the gardens provided some birding opportunities of common Florida birds including exotics like Common Myna, Monk Parakeet, Moscovy Duck and Collared Dove.
January 7th - Shark Valley (Everglades) (Pranty p. 202)
This is probably the best spot to watch Alligators close up, impressive! It is also a good place to look for birds, especially wading birds. We took the guided tram tour which stops for Alligators and birds, the guide always asks if there is any birders on board and tries to find the requested birds, but they didn't find me a Limpkin!
Highlights: Purple Gallinule, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-heron, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Anhinga, Snail Kite, Woodstork and Belted Kingfisher.
January 9th - Markham County Park (Pranty p. 218)
The park borders Water Conservation Area 2B (Everglades) and is a good spot for Snail Kite. It is a little difficult to find the access to the levee overlooking the conservation area, as the nature trail isn't marked very well, but if you walk west along the canal at the entrance for about 0.5 mile, it take you to the overlook. The water level in the conservation area was high, so few wading birds, but the Snail Kites were fantastic, I saw at least 5 Snail Kites hunting over the water at the same time. At one point one was drifting by me only 50 feet away, it landed in a tree close by and provided stunning views. The park itself is good for songbirds.
Highlights: Mottled Duck, Snail Kite, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, Kestrel, Forster's Tern, Purple Gallinule, Monk Parakeet, Phoebe, Prairie Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Palm Warbler, Com. Yellowthroat, Blue-headed Vireo and White-winged Dove
Florida is ideal for winter birding, plenty of birds and a nice and warm climate, I had never birded Coastal Georgia before, but there were many interesting sites to visit, so definitely worth a visit. Overall I managed to find 5 of the 8 target species (Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Painted Bunting, Northern Caracara, Whooping Crane and White-crowned Pigeon), which I consider a successful outcome. I was unlucky to miss the Limpkin again, again, but lucky to find the Lesser Nighthawk. Smooth-billed Ani and Fulvous Whistling Duck are very local and I probably need more precise directions to good locations in order to find these birds. The total number of bird species seen was 131, see below.
Hanover, NH (Stefan.sturup(at)dartmouth.edu)