For many birders, Florida sums up visions of a blue-and-grey jay, tucked into holidays incorporating palm-fringed beaches, huge rollercoasters and a mouse with big ears. Dig a little deeper and this surprisingly diverse State has a great deal more to offer, as an excellent birding destination in its own right. Aside from an interesting set of resident species, a winter trip to the northern reaches of Florida can produce a mouth-watering selection of species which can be challenging to pin down elsewhere in North America.
Most visitors tend to gravitate south from Orlando, however our route took us largely to the north, into a land of Live Oaks draped in extravagant lichen beards, never-ending stands of pine and of bird-filled swamp forest. It really is another world, far removed from the warm ocean and theme parks of the peninsular, with a real Deep South character; as the Florida saying goes, “the further north you go, the further south you get”.
As this was my sixth visit to the wonderful US of A, I could afford to be a little selective with my target birds, and our itinerary was largely shaped by the species which I hoped to find. Our chosen route was both hugely enjoyable and highly productive from a personal birding perspective, with a hefty seven new bird species secured in the form of American Woodcock, Sprague’s Pipit, Florida Scrub-jay, Winter Wren, both Saltmarsh and Henslow’s Sparrows and Rusty Blackbird. Further ornithological interest was provided by way of ‘Florida’ Sandhill Crane, 8 species of wintering New World warblers, and 10 different American sparrows. Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow are also available for those who choose to search in the right places, plus Le Conte’s Sparrow for those blessed with better luck than me!
In order to keep a non-birding wife entertained, our circuit also encompassed a day at the incomparable Kennedy Space Centre, an unforgettable morning snorkelling with Manatees in the Crystal River, plus sightseeing at St Augustine, Apalachicola and Tallahassee’s Cotton Trail. When combined with as many good restaurants as we could accommodate and some first-class accommodation, the result was a highly relaxed trip, with a little something for everyone, in this immensely hospitable State.
Day 1 Flight from Gatwick to Orlando, drive to Titusville. Accom: Quality Inn, Titusville
Day 2 Titusville, Shiloh Marsh, Scrub Ridge Trail, Peacock’s Pocket Road (all on Merritt Island), Titusville. Accom: Quality Inn, Titusville
Day 3 Titusville, Shiloh Marsh, Kennedy Space Centre, drive to St Augustine. Accom: Holiday Inn Express, St Augustine
Day 4 St Augustine, Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve, St Augustine, M&M Diary Duval (in northeast Jacksonville), drive to Tallahassee. Accom: Best Western Plus, Tallahassee
Day 5 Tallahassee, St Marks NWR, Tallahassee. Accom: Best Western Plus, Tallahassee
Day 6 Tallahassee, Apalachicola, Tallahassee. Accom: Best Western Plus, Tallahassee
Day 7 Tallahassee, Lake Jackson, Parish Lake Landing (north of Blountstown), Tallahassee Cotton Trail, drive to Crystal River. Accom: Holiday Inn Express, Crystal River
Day 8 Crystal River, swimming with Manatees, Weeki Wachee Preserve, Crystal River. Accom: Holiday Inn Express, Crystal River
Day 9 Crystal River, Weeki Wachee Preserve, drive to Orlando, flight to Gatwick
Although Florida Scrub-jay can be seen year-round, a trip between November and March is required to search for the target wintering birds listed in the previous section, whilst a time slot of December to February is needed to catch American Woodcock displaying in Florida. Note that the weather can be quite variable and a variety of clothing should be packed accordingly. In the course of our visit temperatures varied from +30 to -6 Degrees Centigrade!
Our flight was with British Airways, though purely on grounds of economy and not patriotism; although a highly professional outfit, I find BA’s new policy of charging extra for advanced seat allocations an infuriating imposition. Car hire was provided by the highly recommended Alamo, whose Ford Escape was an outstanding vehicle; although a 4WD is not required at any of the sites visited, for me it makes the driving experience much more pleasurable. In total we covered around 1200 miles during our nine day circuit.
Accommodation and restaurants were all sourced through the invaluable Trip Advisor website, and every hotel we used proved to be worthy of commendation. Details of individual hotels and eateries are included in both the itinerary above and the Daily Diary section of the report.
Reference to my usual source of birding trip reports, the fantastic Cloudbirders website, revealed rather scant information with regard to any focussed birding trips to northern Florida. Therefore, in planning the birding elements of the tour I was reliant upon two resources, firstly the eBird online distribution mapping service and secondly the immense amount of help given by a long list of generous local birders.
I would like to give credit to the following parties, all of whom played a part in making our trip both incredibly successful and hugely enjoyable: David Simpson, Andy Wraithmell, Carly Wainwright, Mike Nelson, Thad Roller, Bev Hansen, Larry Gridley and Rob Lengacher.
Saturday 3rd January
Selecting a luxurious 4WD from a long line of equally well-qualified vehicles is something of a pleasure in the Alamo parking lot, at the conclusion of a nine hour flight between Gatwick and Orlando International Airport. The Ford Escape which we pick has less than 3,000 miles on the clock, electronically adjustable seats, reversing camera, cruise control and that unmistakable ‘just-off-the-production line’ smell!
Our Tomtom is plugged in, programed for the Titusville Quality Inn, and we set off into a tropically warm Florida evening. It takes an hour of eastward travel on Florida’s world-class highway network to deliver us to our accommodation, close to which a hastily-purchased Subway and a crate of Blue Moon provide a welcome room-picnic at the conclusion of a long day’s travel; it’s great to be back in the USA.
Sunday 4th January
During my half-hour drive north to Shiloh Marsh, on Merritt Island, I witness the warm orange glow of dawn illuminate the eastern horizon, to silhouette the fan-like heads of Palmetto Palms which line much of the route. The drive down the well-concealed access track to the Marsh reveals a series of ponds, each shrouded in a thick layer of early-morning mist and alive with waterbirds. Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, Anhingas, American White Pelicans, Snowy and Reddish Egrets, Great Blue, and Tricoloured Herons, Glossy and White Ibises all abound.
Upon reaching the gravel car park at the end of the track I find that in spite of my early alarm, a dozen fishermen have beaten me to the spot, as their parked-up SUVs and trailers testify. The fishermen are well out on the Indian River by now, however, leaving me as the only intruder at the pools and huge tracts of saltmarsh which lie beyond. Saltmarsh Sparrow is my target bird here, and in order to facilitate the hunt for this specialist dweller of the brackish marshes I have come armed with a pair of wellies and some waterproof trousers. Although the tropical heat makes wearing such attire a little uncomfortable, it really is essential if one wishes to hunt for Ammodramus sparrows in this environment.
Some eBird reports state that the target sparrows can be seen around the parking lot, however only Swamp Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats can be coaxed from the undergrowth here and there is clearly nothing else for it but to head into the spikey grass and ankle-deep saltwater. After negotiating an obstacle-course of vegetation and deep dykes I find my way to the required habitat, where Brown Pelicans, Ospreys, Black and Turkey Vultures are now in constant view above.
It is very soon apparent how difficult a habitat this is to work, as progress is tricky amongst the various water-filled creeks and the sparrows really are very thin on the ground. Sedge Wrens complicate the search, appearing briefly enough to reveal a temptingly streaky back, before burying themselves in a dense patch of ground cover. The sparrows are equally as shy, generally whizzing low into a clump of sedge and refusing to budge until kicked out again, to repeat the process.
A great deal of patience, stalking, pishing, squeaking and playback eventually coaxes a number of sparrows into identifiable view, but each in turn materialise into Nelson’s Sparrow, a wonderful little bird, but not my desired target. Nelson’s Sparrow varies quite significantly in terms of intensity of back pattern, breast colouration and definition of streaking and I soon conclude that the five birds seen are made up of representatives of both the nelsoni interior and subvirgatus coastal races.
With my allotted two hours used up I hit the road back to Titusville, passing an assortment of fresh road-kill en route, whose numbers include Nine-banded Armadillo, Virginia Opossum and Northern Racoon; sadly roadside corpses prove to make up my only Florida encounters of any of these species. Back at the Quality Inn, Victoria has made good use of the pool and after a typical motel breakfast of scrambled egg on toast and freshly-made waffles, we are ready for a day on Merritt Island.
Accessed via the town of Titusville and a steeply elevated causeway to allow navigation of the Intracoastal Waterway, the 140,000 acres of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is almost exclusively set aside for conservation purposes. The Island’s southern limits encompass the Kennedy Space Centre, and although the towering outline of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building is in regular view across the flat terrain, today’s focus will be further to the north. Habitat varies from estuarine to freshwater marshes, pine woods and dune systems, however it is the scrubland which is to be at the centre of our attention.
Florida Scrub-jay populations have been devastated by habitat loss over the last seventy years, as coastal development has swallowed up swathes of the scrub and flatwood habitat on which this bird is dependant. Merritt Island is now recognised as one of the best places in the State to see Florida Scrub-jay, whose population may be as low as 6,000 individuals. The Scrub Ridge Trail has been singled out as the prime location to search for the Jay, so this is our first port-of-call.
By mid-morning the temperature is up in the mid 20s and the sky is clear, as we set out on the short loop trail which leads through Palmetto Palm and low oak scrub, to run beside the vast Mosquito Lagoon. Wintering Palm Warblers flit through the trees and Northern Mockingbirds occupy prominent vantage points, meaning that it takes a whole twenty minutes of searching before we spy a blue head amongst the grey ones! Once located, the charismatic family group of three Florida Scrub-jays provide tremendous entertainment, perching right beside us, feeding at our feet and, at one point, perching on Victoria’s head! Adorned in a subtle combination of cobalt blues, greys and whites, these inquisitive beauties keep us enthralled for a good hour, before we leave them to the next set of visitors.
Then we head for the Visitors’ Centre, via various distractions including perched Bald Eagles, a lone female Wild Turkey, a ‘flock’ of eight circling Ospreys and a superb Great Horned Owl which is incubating close to the road, in an abandoned crow’s nest. Cold drinks at the visitors’ centre are very welcome, as are a fine pair of Painted Buntings frequenting the feeder. The well-maintained boardwalks lead us past woodland and pools, where White Peacock, Common Buckeye, Southern Dogface and Zebra Longwing are amongst the spectacular butterflies we manage to identify.
The remainder of the afternoon pulls in a rapidly curtailed visit to the very busy Playalinda Beach, and a drive down the Peacock’s Pocket Trail, where the day’s final birding adds Savannah Sparrow, Killdeer, Sora and Northern Harrier to the list. It’s a great spot to end the day, amidst another host of feeding waterbirds and several basking American Alligators, with the Kennedy Space Centre skyline as a backdrop.
The drive back to the Holiday Inn takes us past a wonderful flock of Black Skimmers, and after a spruce-up, it’s time to hit the town of Titusville, where the famous Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant is our chosen venue. Being huge seafood fans, this establishment is a must, with first-class service, a great atmosphere and a menu which has one salivating as it is read! After a corn fritter entre, Cajun fish soup follows, then a melody of coconut battered and bacon-wrapped king prawns. We share a Cape Canaveral Special for our main, which appears as a huge plate sporting a bed of rock shrimp, king prawns and scallops, topped with a whole lobster. It is magnificent, and we end the day both very full and very contented.
Monday 5th January
This morning’s pre-breakfast visit to Shiloh Marsh has a very different feel, in much cooler and rather breezy conditions. The sparrows are even harder to get to grips with today, in spite of my insight into where best to look, and the prolonged trawl produces just two Nelson’s Sparrows. The saltmarsh searching does permit a point-blank encounter with a wonderfully photogenic American Bittern, however, plus a flyover pair of Sandhill Cranes of the pratensis race, endemic to Florida. Sora, Forster’s Tern and a huge migrating flock of three hundred American Robins are also worthy of mention, before breakfast-time beckons.
Post-waffles and checkout we take a twenty minute drive southeast, back onto Merritt Island, however today the binoculars are destined to remain in the car. There can be few people in the Western World who do not have some knowledge of the Saturn V Programme, Neil Armstrong’s Giant Leap and the Space Shuttle missions, and today we are to visit the hallowed ground where all of this began.
From the offset, the whole Kennedy Space Centre visitor experience is run with typical US efficiency and attention to detail. There is no jostling for position or long queues and every personal staff encounter is engaged with a smile and an enthusiasm to genuinely make your day something to remember.
Our first priority is the bus tour, which takes in what is pretty much the entire history of human space launch technology. Our supremely well-informed driver talks us past the colossal Vehicle Assembly Building, with its iconic NASA logo, along the route of the huge gravel crawler roads used to transport the assembled rockets to the launch pads and past the gargantuan tracked crawlers themselves, one of which is currently being refitted in anticipation of the next generation Space Launch System. Everyone has seen these monuments of man’s endeavour on TV, but to witness the sheer scale of the operation first hand is an experience not to be missed.
The bus delivers us to the Saturn V Centre, where a fascinating introductory show takes the audience back into the 1960s space race, and then onwards into the actual launch control room used to facilitate the moon landings. After further insights and a mesmerising launch reconstruction, which genuinely raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck, the doors open into a vast auditorium housing an actual Saturn V Rocket. We wander in awe below this colossal spacecraft, then we reinact a lunar landing and get up-close to the actual space suits and other technical gadgetry used on the moon, to conclude a spellbinding couple of hours.
After being bussed back to the visitor complex, the next gripping instalment is an encounter with the Atlantis, the last Space Shuttle to take flight. This is a real personal highlight, culminating in the unveiling of this wonder of aeronautical technology, visibly showing the burns and scars inflicted by her final re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere; I won’t reveal the full details and potentially detract from a visit, but it is most definitely a sight which will long remain in the mind’s eye.
Eating, a 3-D movie theatre and a wander past several more exhibits wrap-up a completely exhilarating seven-hour visit, then it’s time to head north, towards the town of St Augustine. Our planned Daytona Beach dining stop is thwarted by an inconveniently closed restaurant, but we do get to view the famous Daytona International Speedway track at close quarters, as we grab a Subway alternative! Pleased to reach St Augustine, we hunker down in our palatial Holiday Inn Express room, to plan the northern leg of our grand tour.
Tuesday 6th January
Another day, another saltmarsh. Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve (or GTM for short) was created just to the north of St Augustine town to protect over 70,000 acres of estuarine habitat, and this is my sparrow-bashing site for the early morning period. The route from the Holiday Inn leads through the outskirts of St Augustine, still adorned in twinkling Christmas lights, then north along a beach road lined with luxurious timber houses, each boasting a stunning view of the gathering Atlantic dawn.
My trusty wellies and waterproof trousers are deployed at the reserve entrance, then I cross the freshwater reservoir dam to access the saltmarshes at its western foot. Palm Warblers are abundant in the scrubby margins and soon strikingly marked Seaside Sparrows begin to materialise from the coarse saltmarsh grass clumps. Finally, a more dainty Ammodramus sparrow is located in the low vegetation, but inevitably he too turns his breast to reveal the indistinct streaks which assign him to the Nelson’s camp.
After a full hour-and-a-half of splashing through salty mud, another likely-looking candidate darts through the grasses, this time perching up to allow scrutiny of a distinctly-streaked whitish breast and, vitally, an orange malar stripe which matches the supercillium but is clearly much brighter than the breast below. Bingo, Saltmarsh Sparrow! He remains in view long enough to secure a couple of record photographs, then I trot back to the car on a euphoric high; the sparrows have not beaten me!
After breakfasting we check out, and head back into St Augustine town, holder of the illustrious title of America’s oldest continuously occupied settlement. Dating back to Spanish colonisation in 1565, some real character can be found as one wanders the seafront and adjacent streets, dotted with many architectural gems. Our tour takes us first to the formidable coastal battlements of the Castillo de San Marcos fortress, on to the ornate towers and terracotta hues of the Flagner College, to the equally grand and elaborate Lightner Museum, then down the very touristy St George Street to deliver us at the City Gate.
There are only so many old houses one can walk around in the heat of the day, however, and the tourist crowds are now massing on the narrow streets. We retire to the coast, to admire the black-and-white spiral stripes of St Augustine’s stick-of-rock lighthouse, take a walk along the shoreline and then turn the Escape to the north, in anticipation of the day’s main focus (for me, at least!)
Two years earlier I had searched the lower reaches of New York State for a wintering Rusty Blackbird, and in the process learnt what tricky customers they can be. With a rather remote breeding range and something of an unpredictable wintering occurrence, Rusty Blackbird has attained a position in the upper echelons of my Florida ‘must see’ list. St Marks NWR is a reliable spot, but recent correspondence with Duval County birder Carly Wainwright has set me up with another local alternative, and this is to be our next stop.
Still known as ‘M&M Dairy’, the flat fields in the northeastern suburbs of Jacksonville originally hosted a dairy farm, which has in recent years undertaken a metamorphosis into a large industrial park. Sandwiched between the huge concrete and steel distribution units and parking areas of two companies called Crowley and Sears, we find the wonderful little patch of deciduous swamp forest which Carly has described to us. On one hand it seems tragic that this wonderful block of habitat is all-but swallowed up by urban sprawl, whilst on the other it was something of a miracle that it has somehow survived and is clearly still attracting a wealth of wildlife.
With my back to a wide road along which a procession of huge articulated lorries trundle, I study the trees and wetland for any sign of movement. Wintering Myrtle Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Phoebes chase through the low, bare branches and a Downy Woodpecker chips away at a rotten trunk, but for the first half-hour of the vigil no trace of my much-wanted Icterid is seen. Then, suddenly, a cacophony of wheezy, metallic calls announces the presence of a flock of birds, deep in the swamp, which have to be my quarry. A period of frantic repositioning follows, until I grab a glimpse of the first few Rusty Blackbirds as they move low through the bare trunks. A scope view reveals a distinctive pale iris and thin bill, but I want more than distant views of these mega Icterids.
Slowly the group of feeding birds works its way towards me, seemingly growing in numbers all the time, until I eventually have twenty-three Rusty Blackbirds feeding beside me, in the corner of the marsh closest to the road. I watch them methodically flick over one dead leaf after another, constantly searching for tiny red worms which they rapidly devour. Their plumage ranges widely, between sex and between progression of moult, with some male birds in almost full, brightly iridescent summer plumage and others dusted in dull bronzy ‘rust’ from bill to tail. Females are equally as attractive, with a bold black mask emphasising the beady pale iris, elaborate scalloping to back and underparts and broad, rusty tertial fringes. Awesome, in fact they instantly claim a slot right up there in my ‘bird of the trip’ league!
The sun is nearing the horizon as I reluctantly return to the car, to begin a drive west to Tallahassee, which is to take the best part of three hours. The Best Western Plus Tallahassee North Hotel is therefore a sight for (literally) sore eyes, though once located we skirt by for fuel, a crate of Blue Moon and a takeaway Taco Bell, before checking in to what proves to be another superb hotel. We have three nights to enjoy our gateway to the Deep South, and this evening is a very relaxing start.
Wednesday 7th January
Our original itinerary saw today earmarked for a dawn foray to the well-known ‘Twin Bridges’ site in St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, however our success with Rusty Blackbird at M&M Dairy means that we can enjoy a relaxed Best Western Breakfast; here an automatic pancake making machine is a source of both instant entertainment and highly calorific sustenance!
It’s a full forty-five minute drive from the hotel to St Marks NWR, via the purchase of some picnic fayre, and as we approach the Refuge boundary we encounter ever-increasing stands of coniferous forest, blanketing the wet, flat lowlands. Beyond the entrance kiosk the habitat takes on a totally different character, with mixed Palmetto and pine swamp forest running right to the roadside, punctuated by occasional lakes and marshland. Beneath a clear blue sky, it is breathtakingly beautiful and we agree that this is the most scenic area of Florida visited in the course of our short tour.
We’ve not just made the journey to admire the scenery though, there are ticks to be had down here! The reserve covers an immense 68,000 acres in total, with resident Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrows amongst its numbers, as well as a growing translocated population of wintering Whooping Cranes. These birds are not the purpose of the visit, however, as they are already on my ABA List, it is the humble Henslow’s Sparrow that has inspired our direction of travel.
Research has revealed that the St Marks Helipad is the place to look, as a plot of land the size of a couple of football fields is cyclically cut in order to retain an emergency helicopter landing area. Henslow’s Sparrows, and occasionally Le Conte’s Sparrows too, favour this open grassy habitat, so this is the first port of call.
Walking down the pine-lined trail toward the Helipad reveals that Brown-headed Nuthatches are a common bird here, with several small groups seen amidst the flaking bark and green needles. Turning into the open meadow area, the first birds I see are a group of three Field Sparrows, a dainty little bird with pink bill and attractive facial markings which I haven’t seen since a visit to Texas, some twenty-five years previously. The very next bird I flush is a smaller, duller sparrow, which sits in the centre of a low bush to be instantly identified as a Henslow’s Sparrow!
He’s a little cracker, with a neat necklace of well-defined dark breast-streaks, a bright yellow-olive face and a distinct white eye-ring. Inevitably the encounter is a brief one, but I manage to snatch a couple of images before he disappears into the undergrowth, never to be seen again. A further hour-and-a half of tramping around the field produces a host of Swamp Sparrows plus a single Lincoln’s Sparrow, and also serves to illustrate how lucky I was with my early Ammodramus encounter.
With the target bird safely in the bag, I return to the car to celebrate with a brew from the hot flask, then Vic and I walk for several miles on the trails which lead through the atmospheric swamp forest. Although it is much cooler here than in Peninsular Florida, the sun is warming the trails and a host of wonderful Monarch butterflies are taking to the wing, gliding down the pathways and occasionally alighting on the sandy earth, in search of minerals.
More Brown-headed Nuthatches are seen, plus Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Grey Catbirds, Red Cardinals, Common Yellowthroats and Myrtle Warblers. A couple of White-tailed Deer are startled from the track, and a hefty fur-filled dropping reveals that a Bobcat has passed this way the previous night.
Continuing our drive south, the forested landscape gives way to increasingly extensive areas of marshland and more open horizons, where we choose to take a break beside the aptly named Picnic Lake. Here we consume our sandwiches and cakes, washed down with a good fresh brew, as we admire the fishing Ospreys in a supremely tranquil setting. At the end of Lighthouse Road it is no surprise to find St Marks Lighthouse, an elegant white structure dating back to 1830. Here, Victoria settles herself down with sketchpad and pens, whilst I explore the surrounding coastline and marshes.
Out on the sea Buffleheads, Great Northern Divers, Slavonian and Black-necked Grebes dive for fish, Willets flock and a surprise inshore pod of four Common Dolphins pursue a doomed shoal of fish. The adjacent freshwater wetlands host Lesser Yellowlegs, American Wigeon, Canvasback and Redhead, with a Cooper’s Hawk making a rapid fly-through appearance.
The remainder of the afternoon is accounted for with a slow drive back to the St Marks NWR Visitors’ Centre, where we chat to the enthusiastic and very friendly staff, before taking up position just north of the entrance kiosk as the sun settles below the treeline. I have been told that a number of American Woodcock were displaying in this area late last winter, but there have been recent heavy rains, waterlogging the open areas and making their continued presence seem much less likely.
It is nearly dark when I hear a couple of bursts of the ‘peent-peent’ display note of American Woodcock, and as I stumble through the recently-cleared ground in the direction of the calls, the distinctive silhouette of my target bird flies rapidly past me. All is then quiet, and although I have ‘seen’ an American Woodcock, I know I haven’t really.
Back in Tallahassee, the chosen venue for our big night out is the Kool Beanz Café. It’s a buzzing little establishment, packed full even on a cold Wednesday evening, with very friendly staff and exciting modern décor. Our mussels, followed by tuna, are excellent, perfectly rounding off a memorable first day in Florida’s wonderful ‘Deep South’.
Thursday 8th January
Following reports of the arrival of a cold front overnight we expect to require our winter woollies, but it’s still something of a surprise when the car’s thermometer registers -6 Degrees Centigrade! Today’s destination is around an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, to the little coastal town of Apalachicola, but the route is extremely scenic and Tallahassee WTNT provides a fitting country music background as we pass through vast forests and past quaint little settlements.
Clearing the conifer belt of both Apalachicola and Tate’s Hell Forests, we hit the Gulf Coast to head west, hugging the waterfront until a causeway and arching bridge take us across the wide Apalachicola River Delta. Apalachicola Town lies at the far end of the causeway, a pretty little settlement with lots of character and ample drawing opportunities for Vic. So I deposit my wife, suitably wrapped-up to fend off the cold, and head a little further west, for something of a unique birding adventure.
The eBird online database is an absolutely invaluable resource when visiting the USA, and it is by this means that just a week before our departure to Florida I discover that Sprague’s Pipit is a realistic target bird for the trip. With a rather isolated breeding range and a somewhat obscure wintering presence in the southeast USA, it is a species which always has one scratching one’s head when working out a ‘USA clean-up’ strategy. The chance of tagging a reliable Sprague’s Pipit wintering site onto the Florida trip has me excited, to say the very least, though accessing the precise area seems to present a challenge, as it is an active airfield!
Having been reliably informed by local birders that a visit to the administration building at Apalachicola Municipal Airfield will facilitate permission to walk the airstrip in search of pipits, this is my first port of call. It is with some trepidation that I venture inside; one can only imagine the response if asking to wander the runways of a working UK airstrip?!
I put on my best British accent, ask to look for pipits, and find that the guys in the control room could not be more accommodating. It seems that a steady stream of birders have been visiting the site, and I am instantly granted free range of the runways and adjacent grassland, “as long as I watch out for aeroplanes”! Thanking them warmly, I don every item of winter clothing I have brought with me and set out into a biting cold northerly wind, which is whipping across the open expanse of the airfield.
It isn’t every day that one gets to walk across a live runway, in fact it may be a first, but there is no sign of any aeronautical activity and soon I’m stomping through the short grass which separates the triangle of runways, flushing a succession of Savannah Sparrows as I go. A chunky Vesper Sparrow is also picked out, before a high-pitched call announces that I have flushed a Sprague’s Pipit. Up and away he goes, flying several hundred metres to drop into an area of taller, denser grassy cover. A chase to the spot produces a repeat performance, followed by a couple more, and I have seen absolutely no features whatsoever on the bird!
Somewhat disheartened, I set off to try and find a more cooperative individual, and it takes me a full hour of criss-crossing the grass and runways before I spy a bird in some shorter grass that seems to be happily feeding. With some stealthy manoeuvring I manage to get myself into a position where I can study the well-streaked upperparts, neat breast-band and highly distinctive bold-eye-on-plain-face of this enigmatic species. This time around I even get a set of half-decent photos and, very pleased with my morning’s work, I set off back to the ‘terminal’ at double time, flushing a third Sprague’s Pipit en route.
After a very big thank-you to Taylor, in the control room, I remove four layers of clothing and head sharply back to Apalachicola town, for my lunch-date with Victoria. After such a successful morning’s birding, where better to celebrate than in the Owl Café?! The venue is magnificent, and upstairs in the tastefully furnished timber building we discover one of the best restaurants of our tour. Fresh crab pate and fried oysters are followed by the most amazing bowl of steaming hot, spicy Jambalaya, containing shrimp, chicken and sausage, over boiled rice. It rapidly thaws out our frozen cores, setting us up perfectly for a sunny afternoon walking-tour of the historic streets, shops and waterfront of this appealing little town.
We begin the journey back to Tallahassee in good time, but break our travel at the Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk in a rather scenic corner of Tate’s Hell State Forest. As well as enchanting forest views, this is also the land of the deer hunter, and every turn of the track seems to reveal a huge pickup and accompanying camouflaged figure, with either a cage of fierce dogs or a raised hunting swivel chair set up in the rear; it’s all a little sinister and un-nerving to a natural history lover from across The Pond!
The glorious sunset sees another stop for a speculative attempt at American Woodcock in a likely-looking forest clearing. All is predictably quiet, however, as is the remainder of the journey back to Tallahassee, where we take a quiet night in, catching up on painting, photo editing and note-writing in our cosy Best Western suite.
Friday 9th January
Although today is badged as something of a repositioning event, we have so enjoyed our time around Tallahassee that we are determined to eke out some more of the Deep South experience before we head back down the peninsula. After checking out we head to Lake Jackson, where eBird states that Winter Wren, my last possible Tallahassee tick, has recently been seen.
A couple of local birders at Rhoden Cove Landing pour scorn on the likelihood of the sighting, but the stop does add American Goldfinch and Northern Flicker to the trip total and Limpkin to my ABA List! Further out on the lake a swim-past by a Northern River Otter is carried out in a frustratingly swift fashion, but does provide the first mammal-tick of the trip. Moving to my next Winter Wren site via some of the most lavish real estate in the area, we find Jackson View Park to be similarly devoid of any Troglodites activity, and make a call to head a little further west for a final pop at this elusive species.
Parish Lake Landing, just to the north of Blountstown, is reached via a quiet farm road which terminates at a wonderful, remote block of swamp forest. Tall deciduous trees stand with their feet in the murky waters, draped in lichen, while the perimeter of the swamp is littered with rotting logs and dark tangles of vegetation. The habitat looks perfect for wrens, and a great many other wintering birds clearly find it to their liking too.
My two hours of birding at this obscure site rates as the most enjoyable of the entire trip, as I encounter several bird flocks and log multiple sightings of Yellow-throated, Black-and-white, Orange-crowned, Myrtle and Prairie Warblers, plus a single Pine Warbler. These delicate little woodland gems are complemented by both Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and a plethora of ground-feeding Hermit Thrushes. A handsome White-eyed Vireo is singled out from a number of its equally attractive Blue-headed cousins, while the appearance of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is always an occasion to be savoured.
Although a Carolina Wren is a gorgeous bird, it is not the one I really want to see and so the search continues. It is not until my return walk to the parked car that some movement in a log-pile catches my eye and a tiny brown bird with an erect tail materialises into my much-wanted Winter Wren; it is hard to believe how much more difficult this bird is to see than its Eurasian counterpart, which bounces and sings its way through the shady recesses of every garden and park in the land.
Winter Wren is actually a very different bird from its Pacific congener, seen just a year previously, displaying much lighter and well-barred underparts and much more spotting above. Its habits seem to differ too, clearly being something of a wood-pile specialist, it actually disappears inside the dark recesses of a fallen log and remains hidden for a full fifteen minutes!
Job done, I turn from the swamp to trot back to the car and find my pathway blocked by a huge, battered pickup truck, from which a fully camouflaged hunter is descending. Fearful of a major telling-off at the very least, I pensively approach the well-built fellow, bracing myself for an earful. It turns out that John is simply curious of my camera-toting activity and we enter into a fascinating discussion about his hog-hunting exploits and big cat encounters, conducted in the most addictive deep southern accent! The friendliness of everyone we encounter is just another facet of a visit to this wonderful nation, which makes travelling here such an immense pleasure.
I am, admittedly, a little overdue on my scheduled return time, so to make up I whisk Vic down to the Blountstown Pizza Express, for a revitalising meal of damned good pizza. The last destination on our Tallahassee ‘to do’ list is a drive around the Cotton Trail Tour, located just northeast of the city, over an hour’s drive from our current location.
Back in the 1820s, the Tallahassee region was the most important in the State for cotton growing, and horse-drawn wagons would creak along red clay roads to markets in the capital. Some of the area has changed very little, and a couple of unpaved roads remain, taking the visitor on a drive back through history. The oak-lined canopy roads spread a roof of lichen-bearded boughs above the track, which leads past cattle pastures and plantation paddocks carved out of the woodland. It’s a beautiful locality and an appropriate conclusion to a very memorable visit to this often-neglected corner of the State.
After a final brew and a cake at the scenic Reeve’s Landing, we commence our three-hour journey southwards, via the only Eastern Towhees of the trip and then onto the darkening freeway. Supper at the very comfortable Crystal River Holiday Inn Express is of the Subway and Blue Moon variety, with the last big drive of the trip now safely under the belt.
Saturday 10th January
It has to be said that Florida is not the best state for connoisseurs of mammalian interest. To this point in the trip, aside from our Bottle-nosed Dolphins and all-too-brief Northern River Otter, the ubiquitous Eastern Grey Squirrel, Red Fox and White-tailed Deer are all that we have to show for our efforts; hopefully, this morning, everything will change.
Long before arriving in Florida I have done my research on Manatee viewing opportunities, and it is apparent that if the full face-to-face experience is to be enjoyed, then a visit to the Crystal River is essential. This is the only location in Florida to permit aquatic interaction with these highly protected marine mammals, and therefore plays host to a number of tour operators who will equip visitors with wetsuit, snorkel and mask, then ferry them to the premier viewing sites.
After breakfast we make our way to the rendezvous point, the Sea Breeze Point Marina on the lower reaches of the Crystal River. Here we meet Captain Joe Detrick, of Fun2Dive Charters, and two other young American couples who are as enthusiastic as we are about seeing Manatees up-close. Florida law requires the viewing of a short video covering all the Manatee do’s-and-don’ts, and then Joe also runs through a very extensive debrief of Manatee viewing etiquette, inside a thankfully warm cabin. Although the sky is clear, it’s still damned cold outside, but this is apparently a good sign, as the Manatees congregate around the warm Crystal River springs when the temperature drops.
We all board Captain Joe’s purpose-built Manatee viewing boat, an open craft save for the covered roof, with a shallow enough draught to venture into the river’s headwaters during the lowest of tides. After a fifteen minute blast up the open reaches of the Crystal River, past vast luxury homes with personal moorings alongside, we enter the more secluded headwaters and instantly the dark masses of Manatees can be seen in the waters below.
Venturing up a much narrower tributary, we round a bend to hit the Manatee jackpot, a huddle of around fifty animals, shoulder-to-shoulder, beside a thermal inlet. Here we drop anchor, and Joe hands out wetsuits, boots, masks and snorkels, which we deploy with varying degrees of skill. In spite of the warm springs, the water is decidedly chilly as we lower ourselves down the boat’s rear ladder, however the immediate point-blank views of multiple Manatees takes one’s mind off the less-than-tropical aquatic climes.
The West Indian Manatee, to give him his full title, grows up to 3m in length, can weight 550kg and may live to an age of sixty years. They evolved from four-legged land mammals some 60 million years ago, and their closest living relatives are elephants and hyraxes. These Manatees swim out into the Gulf to graze on marine plants, however they spend half of the day asleep on the river or sea bed, surfacing every twenty minutes-or-so to breathe.
Up-close, their weird proportions and physical traits can be studied in the clear waters of the aptly-named Crystal River, where wrinkled, hairy noses and chins, deep-set elephant-like eyes and huge rounded tail-flipper can be appreciated in full. Their broad backs often show the scars of unfortunate meetings with moving boats, and are also liberally dotted with clumps of green algae, which point to something of a lethargic lifestyle. Manatees actually ‘walk’ on their flippers, which are also used to dig up plants as they feed, and regularly animals ‘walk’ below on the river bed, as we snorkel on the surface.
The most memorable elements of the experience are the personal encounters with these unexpectedly affectionate beasts. Although regulations preclude touching Manatees at one’s own behest, periodically the manatees themselves initiate contact, moving in to nuzzle, nibble and even hug us with arm-like flippers, in unforgettable eye-to-eye encounters.
It’s a very special two hours, and certainly a real trip highlight, concluded with a welcome mug of hot, sweet cocoa and a dry towel back on board the boat. After returning to the marina, the next stop is the Taco Belle for a bite of lunch, then the hotel for a shower and clean-up.
The afternoon of our final full day in Florida is allotted to Weeki Wachee Preserve. Half-an-hour drive south of Crystal River, the Preserve protects a rich mosaic of habitats including several miles of Weeki Wachee River frontage, portions of the Mud River, dense hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and pine-covered sandhills. We park at the Osowaw Boulevard entrance and walk north, first through mixed forest, then into more open grassland habitat and past a series of lakes.
It’s a tranquil setting in which to end the day, with a good network of trails and few other visitors in sight. Swamp and Savannah Sparrows are numerous in the grassland and scrub, as are Palm Warblers and American Robins in the more wooded environment, and we even get a flypast from a pair of Sandhill Cranes.
The real purpose of the visit, however, is for my last attempt at locating an American Woodcock. Local birder Thad Roller has kindly given me some up-to-date advice on where the birds have been displaying, and as the sun sinks below the horizon I settle myself into position. The stake-out is on a wide trail adjacent to the pine woods, and I have scarcely had time to set up the flash and spotlight, when the first distinctive ‘peent-peent’ of a displaying bird is heard.
The light is failing, but I can still make out the plump, rounded shape of a Woodcock standing in the centre of the track, about 100m away. As I get closer I can see that he is rotating as he calls, puffing out his chest and throwing back his head as he does so. I have been told to wait until he rises in display flight, before moving in close to the spot, to which he should return. I try this strategy, but he lands another 100m further along the track!
Trying a different ploy I creep towards the spot, before hitting the spotlight and illuminating this gorgeously marked black, brown and rich-russet wonder of the shorebird world in all his glory. With a distinctive double-stripe atop his crown, an intricately patterned back and glowing peachy-orange flanks, he instantly hits the number-one slot on the bird-of-the-trip league and is immortalised in camera’s memory with a flash of the Speedlite.
After a hasty return to the car we trek back to the Holiday Inn to spruce-up for our last big night out. The chosen venue is the Vintage on 5th restaurant, conveniently located just five minutes from the hotel. Even from the outside this place has great old world charm, and upon entering we find it to be crammed full of diners, always a good sign! The atmosphere is lively, staff attentive and interior design well-conceived. Blue Moon is served with a regulatory orange segment topping the glass, and the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is first class. Our journey through culinary heaven consists of scrumptious crab soup, seared tuna steak served rare, on red pepper mash with wasabi cream drizzle, concluding in a sublime crème brûlée; needless to say, it’s the finest meal of the trip.
Sunday 11th January
And so it is time for our final breakfast bar visit, with its woeful use of disposable cutlery, plates and cups, which has blighted every hotel we visit; how much landfill volume does a single day generate in the USA, from the hotel breakfast source alone? As we pack we lament the end of a wonderful trip that has whizzed by all-too-quickly, wishing we could continue south and see what else this fantastic State has to offer; but all good things must come to an end.
A return visit to Weeki Wachee Preserve is how we plan to see out our final morning, where Victoria finds a perfectly situated covered table at which to work with her watercolours, whilst I set off to work with the sparrows! I have seen seven out of my eight Florida target birds over the last week, with the only one to elude me being Le Conte’s Sparrow. This skulking Ammodramus is known to haunt the Weeki Wachee grasslands and for the next two hours I relentlessly crisscross the flat sandy landscape, kicking tussock and scrub stand until my stamina runs dry.
And so I end my Florida ticking spree on a magnificent seven new birds, and solace is taken in the fact that Le Conte’s Sparrow breeds over quite a wide area, straddling the Canadian border. This range includes some spots nicely aligned with a certain little gem called Kirtland’s Warbler; now there’s the makings of a tasty little trip!
The two hours at Weeki Wachee does produce three Sandhill Cranes, several Bald Eagles and a Sharp-shinned Hawk overhead, plus numerous encounters with Savannah and Swamp Sparrows, House and Sedge Wrens, a few flushed Wilson’s Snipe and a small flock of Tree Swallows. Palm Warblers are particularly numerous here, and I take some time to study and photograph the yellow eastern hypochrysea race and corresponding dull western palmarum birds; up close, they are cracking little warblers in either form.
The only notable occurrence on the drive back to Orlando is a photogenic roadside pair of Sandhill Cranes, and then it is all over. Northern Florida has surprised us both, not only in terms of the outstanding set of wintering birds which are genuinely available to the well-planned visitor, but also by virtue of the character and hospitality of many of the places visited.
Tallahassee and the Florida ‘Deep South’ are worthy of a trip on the strength of this region’s charisma alone, whilst the slick presentation and iconic historical appeal of the Kennedy Space Centre make for an unforgettable day out. Add to this an up-close Manatee experience, some world-class dining, plus the reliability of the USA’s highway infrastructure and hotel networks, and you have a holiday to remember; we are already wondering when we can pull in a springtime trip to the Florida Keys!
Notes on Key Target Species and Local Specialities:
Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis pratensis
Birds of the endemic Florida subspecies can be found in suitable wetland habitat throughout the State, and we dropped onto Sandhill Cranes at three different locations without making a targeted effort to search for them. Seen at Shiloh Marsh (Merritt Island), Weeki Wachee Preserve and in the vicinity of Brooksville, each time in groups of two or three.
American Woodcock Scolopax minor
January is pretty much the peak season for display in Florida, but although this species is described as widespread, locating a specific site proved to be quite problematic. It was heard and seen very briefly just north of the St Marks NWR entrance kiosk on 07/01/15, followed by a wonderful study of a displaying bird at Weeki Wachee Preserve on 10/01/15. The latter bird commenced calling at 18.15 (N28°27’57”, W82°38’30”).
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus
A bird incubating in an old crow’s nest on a telegraph pole, adjacent to the road on Merritt Island, is worthy of note as it was rather impressive and particularly easy to view (N28°38’38”, W80°42’05”).
Florida Scrub-Jay Aphelocoma coerulescens
Widespread but very localised in Central and Southern Florida, there are a number of well-known sites where it should be easy to pin down this species. We found it with very little effort at the Scrub Ridge Trail on Merritt Island, where a party of three birds performed magnificently on 04/01/15 (N28°41’23”, W080°42’46”).
Winter Wren Troglodytes hiemalis
A trip to the Florida Panhandle is required to guarantee this species on its wintering quarters. It can be extremely elusive in its preferred wintering habitat of log-piles and dense tangles, within the gloomy recesses of mature deciduous woodland and swamp forest. Eventually seen in the wonderful swamp forest habitat of Parish Creek Landing, north of Blountstown, on 09/01/15 (N30°28’32”, W85°00’50”).
Sprague’s Pipit Anthus spragueii
Apalachicola Municipal Airfield is the only place on Florida to search for this enigmatic winterer, in fact one must travel nearly 1000km west, to the rice fields of Western Louisiana, before the next nearest reliable sites are found. Permission to access the airfield must be sought from the site control room before entering the property, where the birds can be found in the short mown grassland between and around the concrete runways. In my experience there was not a particular preference in terms of specific sections of the airfield, with three widely spaced birds being located during a determined two-hour search.
Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla
Not a target on this trip, but a wonderful little bird, the only record of which was of a group of three at St Marks NWR Helipad on 07/01/15.
Henslow’s Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii
The Ammodramus sparrows are notoriously difficult to see well in their wintering quarters, generally feeding close to the ground and only appearing briefly when flushed. The similarity of Henslow’s and Le Conte’s (and also Nelson’s and Saltmarsh) serves to compound difficulties, and I always knew that this group would be my greatest challenge. The cyclically mown grass of the St Marks NWR Helipad is known as a good site for this species and provided my only sighting of the trip, a single bird on 07/01/15 (N30°08’24”, W84°08’06”).
Nelson’s Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni
Wintering birds are strictly restricted to coastal saltmarshes, the habitat in which up to five were seen at Shiloh Marsh (N28°48’04”, W80°50’54”) on 04 and 05/01/15, with another single at Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve on 06/01/15 (N30°01’19”, W81°19’46”). Plumage varied widely, with both interior race nelsoni and coastal race subvirgatus birds being noted.
Saltmarsh Sparrow Ammodramus caudacutus
Another saltmarsh specialist, which in my experience was significantly outnumbered as a wintering bird by Nelson’s Sparrow. Just a single bird seen, on 06/01/15, at Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve (N30°01’19”, W81°19’46”).
Seaside Sparrow Ammodramus maritimus
Only found in saltmarshes, around twenty birds were seen at Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve on 06/01/15 (N30°01’19”, W81°19’46”). In this area all birds are of the dark Atlantic Coast maritimus race.
Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus
This rapidly declining species is restricted to wet deciduous woodlands and swamp forest in its wintering grounds and was one of the major target birds of the trip. A regular wintering locality in recent years has been a small block of swamp forest at a site known as M & M Dairy, Duval County. This is where I was delighted to watch a flock of twenty-three birds feeding amongst leaf-litter at close range in the late afternoon of 06/01/15 (N30°27’03”, W81°33’37”). Another regular site is the Twin Bridges area of St Marks NWR, where many people have witnessed congregations of this species just after dawn.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker Picoides borealis
Seen previously and therefore not targeted on this trip, there are several well-known sites for this localised species and it should be easy enough to pick up, given sufficient time; requires extensive Longleaf Pine habitat of the correct age.
Bachman’s Sparrow Peucaea aestivalis
Not a target bird, this regional endemic is easy to find at many sites where its favoured pine forest habitat predominates, though a spring visit when birds are singing would make such a mission much easier.
Le Conte’s Sparrow Ammodramus leconteii
This skulking winterer has been seen at St Marks NWR, Weeki Wachee Preserve and various places in-between, however it is very tricky to pin down at any of them! It winters in grassland habitat, much as Henslow’s Sparrow.
Ian Merrill, Leicestershire, UK. February 2015.