Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
In two-and-a-half weeks Anne and I enjoyed wonderful hospitality, superb wildlife viewing and plenty of American fayre. With 132 species of birds including 21 lifers it was an experience we can thoroughly recommend.
We concentrated on the southern part of Florida, flying direct from Manchester to Orlando and picking up a hire car at the airport. We completed a clockwise loop staying at Melbourne, Florida City, Naples and Venice.
Flights were booked online with Virgin Atlantic. The jumbo was full both ways, mainly families with children, which we expected for an Orlando flight but once out of the airport we only met visitors from the UK twice.
We hired a car with Alamo, booking through a link from the Virgin website. The price was the cheapest I was able to find. The Chevrolet SUV was brand new and proved an excellent vehicle. A bonus was the cost of fuel with petrol less than half the UK price.
All accommodation was sourced through the internet. In Melbourne we stayed at the Crane Creek Inn. Innkeepers Andy and Bambi had only taken over the week before but they were very hospitable. The Inn backs on to a creek running from the Indian River and there was no shortage of birds from our deck! To visit the Everglades we stayed at a Travelodge in Florida City. At Naples we stayed at the Doubletree Suites hotel in North Naples. Finally we stayed at the Banyan Tree B&B in Venice which was an excellent choice to finish and unwind with an outdoor pool heated to 80 degrees.
Central America was experiencing some of the worst snowfalls since records began and the effect on Southern Florida was that our temperatures were below average but the days were fine and dry. Temperatures were between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit which is about 10 degrees below normal. We only had rain twice, once late afternoon and the other overnight. Skies were generally clear blue from mid morning till tea-time with good visibility and clear air, superb for photography. A bonus from the cooler weather was that mosquitoes were non-existent, even in deepest Everglades, and snakes were semi-hibernating. Unfortunately it also meant that there were not many butterflies on the wing.
Sunrise was between 7 and 7.30am with sundown between 6.30 and 7pm.
This was our first visit to Florida and the things that struck us most were how flat the countryside was, how much water was visible, both natural and man-made, and how approachable the birds were. Birding was made easy by the fact that most sites in ‘swampy’ areas had boardwalks across the wet portions.
A great deal of planning went into the trip. Florida is very ‘birder friendly’ and the State is covered by The Great Florida Birding Trail which identifies birding sites. We used the East Section and the South Section guides which are down-loadable from the internet and all one needs for site information. We carried the Sibley Field Guide to the birds of Eastern North America which is an excellent, pocket-sized guide (a much better size for carrying than the UK Collins Guide). For butterflies we carried the Butterflies of Florida Field Guide by Jaret Daniels. As common names vary from source to source, I have used those from the field guides detailed above for this report.
The following is a day-by-day summary of our trip including the wildlife highlights:
Wednesday 3rd February 2010 - Orlando Airport to Melbourne
We arrived at Orlando Airport early afternoon but by the time we had got through security and immigration, and sorted out the car, it was 4pm before we got on the road heading East to the Space Coast. Overhead was the constant presence of Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture, whilst roadside wet areas held Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret and Cattle Egret. Our first Wood Stork was a fly-over.
Turning off the Interstate and driving through Melbourne we added Mourning Dove, Starling and Boat-tailed Grackle. Stopping adjacent to our accommodation we saw a flock of birds which included American Crow, Fish Crow and American Robin.
The Crane Creek Inn backs on to Crane Creek, an inlet off the Indian River Intercoastal Waterway. Before the light faded we saw Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, White Ibis and Osprey.
Thursday 4th February - Melbourne
As dawn broke around 7am we were treated by a major flypast along the Creek with large numbers of birds appearing to head out from overnight roost sites. In addition to Herons, Egrets and Cormorants we watched White Ibis, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Royal Tern and Anhinga. In the mangroves were Belted Kingfisher and Blue Jay whilst in our garden were Yellow-rumped Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler.
Over breakfast we watched Yellow-bellied Sapsucker excavating holes in an adjacent Palm tree.
We spent the morning walking around Melbourne Marina and headland adding to our list White Pelican, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Mottled Duck, Red-shouldered Hawk, Pine Warbler and Northern Mockingbird. Throughout our walk we were surrounded by hundreds of American Robin eating the fruits from the Palm trees. Returning to the Inn we saw our first Alligator in the Creek.
In the afternoon we visited the nearby Turkey Creek Sanctuary. We were soon adding new sightings including Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cedar Waxwing and Tree Swallow. In the waterways we found Florida Softshell Turtle, Peninsula Cooter (turtle) and Florida Red-bellied Turtle.
Our last sighting of the day was of a Raccoon as we were walking back to our B&B after dinner.
Friday 5th February - Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
After breakfast we drove north for an hour to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Crossing over the waterway we pulled into the first parking lot for amazing views of Black Skimmer, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull and Boat-tailed Grackle which were very obliging for photographs.
Our next stop was the Visitor Information Centre and the adjacent boardwalk before doing the 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive.
Merritt Island took a full day but added excellent views of many new birds including Pied-billed Grebe, Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Bald Eagle, Kildeer, Semipalmated Plover, Snowy Plover, Willet, Wilson’s Snipe, Bonaparte’s Gull, Forster’s Tern and Painted Bunting. Two species of butterfly were seen; Gulf Fritillary and Great Southern White.
Saturday 6th February - Kennedy Space Centre
We devoted a day to visit the Kennedy Space Centre located on Merritt Island. Before setting off we saw our first Northern Cardinal at the B&B.
This was an interesting and enlightening day. As the KSC is on Merritt Island (at the southern side of the Wildlife Refuge) we saw plenty of Herons, Egrets and Gulls and whilst being transported between the various sites added Florida Scrub Jay to the list.
Sunday 7th February - Melbourne to Florida City
We were on Melbourne Beach at 4.30am with our hosts to see the last night-time launch of the Space Shuttle which unfortunately was aborted five minutes before blast-off due to the cloud cover. It did take off the following day but by then we were in the Everglades.
As we headed south we pulled into a service area for coffee and saw a noisy group of Monk Parakeet. We broke the journey by visiting the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Reserve. Here we added Northern Harrier, Solitary Sandpiper, Savannah Sparrow and a Florida speciality, Limpkin. Other sightings included Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, and Zebra Longwing, Queen and Pearl Crescent butterflies.
Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th February - Everglades National Park
We spent two full days in the Everglades National Park taking the drive from Florida City to Flamingo. The Park entrance is 8 miles from Florida City and an entrance ticket costs $10, however this lasts for 7 days so we kept our receipt and used it for these days and a stop enroute to Naples.
We completed the selection of short trails and boardwalks along the drive to Flamingo, and at Flamingo we took a boat trip into Florida Bay to see the Bottlenose Dolphins. Whilst Alligators are mainly fresh-water reptiles, Crocodiles prefer salt-water. In Flamingo harbour we saw Crocodile and our first Manatee.
New birds on the trails included American Bittern, Purple Gallinule, Smooth-billed Ani, Loggerhead Shrike and Brown Thrasher. At Flamingo we added the localised Great White Heron, the white morph of Great Blue Heron together with both Black-crowned Night-heron and Yellow-crowned Night-heron; and in Flamingo Bay there were several Gannet. Butterflies seen in the Park were Long-tailed Skipper, Julia, Florida White and Common Buckeye.
Other interesting sightings were of White-winged Dove on the outskirts of Florida City, and Common Myna around our motel.
Wednesday 10th February - Florida City to Naples
We drove north from Florida City then joined Route 41 (the Tamiami Trail) heading due west across the top of the Everglades.
Our first stop was the Shark Valley Visitor Centre (entrance using our Everglades N.P. receipt). There were many Herons and Egrets on the walks but our only new sighting was of a Common Spreadwing damselfly.
One of our target species for this journey was Snail Kite which can be found around the many airboat stations. We had nearly given up when we came across four hunting over a marsh beside the road and we were able to stop and watch them for some time as they caught Apple Snails then landed to devoured them.
We had intended to take the Loop Road, a recognised wildlife drive, but this was closed due to erosion, so we took the Turner River Loop Road (known correctly as Alligater Alley). Again there were many Herons, Egrets and Anhingas. New birds were Sedge Wren and Eastern Bluebird
Thursday 11th February - Naples and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
We had selected a suite hotel at North Naples overlooking a creek for four nights and from our room and balcony sightings included Spotted Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Anhinga, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker, Osprey and White Ibis.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a premier Audubon Society reserve and comprises a 2.25 mile boardwalk. We found the visit frustrating with lots of visitors (many without binoculars) and a lack of birding etiquette. Also the entrance charge was pricey at $10 per person when other reserves ranged from $6 to $10 per vehicle.
Having said that we had excellent views of Painted Bunting, Ovenbird and Red-shouldered Hawk. Also we found a feeding flock including Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Pine Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Friday 12th February - Naples
A walk along Naples beach and pier found the birds very approachable for pictures. They included Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Willet, Black-bellied Plover, Royal Tern and Snowy Egret.
Naples Botanical Gardens had recently been re-opened after major refurbishment and an afternoon visit added Purple Martin and Mallard to our list.
Saturday 13th February - Sanibel Island
Today was devoted to visiting Sanibel Island and the J.N.’Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge. We chose the Saturday as the wildlife drive is closed on Fridays but we hadn’t expected to encounter a large two-day craft fair with long vehicle queues as there is only one way onto the island ($6 toll bridge).
The four-mile Wildlife Drive was also busy but productive. There were many Herons, Egrets and Ducks and we saw our only Reddish Egret of the trip. We also added Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot. On leaving the drive we were mesmerised by a wheeling flock of several thousand Tree Swallows.
Before leaving the island we walked The Bailey Tract which was very quiet.
Sunday 14th February - Naples to Venice
As we drove north to Venice we broke the journey at the Babcock and Webb Wildlife Management Area, a 65,000 acre private reserve. Around the entrance were Northern Cardinal and Killdeer before we found a singing Eastern Meadowlark.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a speciality on the reserve and we headed to the areas where they breed. Whilst not seeing them there, at the junction of Tram Grade and Oil Well Grade we found a feeding flock of birds and spent over an hour at one spot. We saw a Red-cockaded Woodpecker and in addition Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.
Monday 15th February - Venice
From the B&B we regularly saw Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird and Mourning Dove. Over the time of our stay we also saw Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk, and on the wire outside our room our only House Finch.
In the morning we walked into Venice, and an afternoon walked along the beach. Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling were very accommodating, as were Forster’s Tern fishing close to the beach.
Tuesday 16th February - Myakki River State Park
Today was spent at Myakki River State Park north-east of Venice. On farmland about 2 miles from the Park entrance we saw our first Sandhill Crane.
In the Park we drove the 7-mile Scenic Drive which was good for Herons, Egrets and Alligators.
We visited the Canopy Walkway which was a bit of an anti-climax as the walkway was only 30 metres long and below the top of the trees. Having said that, the tower at one end went up to 22.6 metres and gave a good view of the surrounding area and tree-tops.
There is a Concession for food at the Upper Lake but this was extremely busy due to boat trips and canoe hire.
Other sightings included White-eyed Vireo, Collared Kingfisher, Savannah Sparrow, Glossy Ibis and American Kestrel. We also saw our only Wild Boar of the trip.
Wednesday 17th and Thursday 18th February - Venice
To finish our trip we spent two lazy days enjoying the environment and the pool. Walking into Venice centre for lunch we connected with Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay and Cedar Waxwing.
We also visited The Rookery, home to the Venice Audubon Society. Behind the County Administrative Building is a small lake with an island used by mainly Herons and Egrets. As we drove in our path was blocked by three Sandhill Cranes, and around the rear we added Black-bellied Whistling Duck to our list.
Friday 19th February - Venice - Orlando Airport
Before leaving Venice we paid another visit to The Rookery and got our last new bird of the trip – a Great Horned Owl nesting on a mast behind the Administration Building.
Enroute to the airport we stopped at Big Bend Power Station on Apollo Beach. When the sea is cold, Manatee congregate around the Station outflows where the waters are warmer and Tampa Electric have provided a viewing facility. We were treated to a spectacle of about 200 manatees relaxing around the viewing platforms whilst Spotted Eagle Rays regularly leapt out of the water. Butterfly plants around the Centre were in flower hosting Variegated Fritillary, Gulf Fritillary and Great Southern White.
As we drove back to the airport under circling Vultures we reflected on an enjoyable trip to Southern Florida.
If further details are required, the author can be contacted at email@example.com
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Snowy (Kentish) Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock (Feral) Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
Great Horned Owl
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Great Southern White
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly
Common Spreadwing damsel
Florida Softshell Turtle
Peninsula Cooter Turtle
Florida Red-bellied Turtle
Spotted Eagle Ray