For the weekend before Columbus Day, my wife and I flew down to Florida to spend time in Ocala for primarily non-birding-related reasons. Of course, there were opportunities to fit in some birding. Generally I will list a bird species only the first time it was encountered in the trip, unless later sightings were notable for some reason. No life birds were seen on the trip.
Saturday the twelfth: As we had arrived at our hotel well after midnight Friday, we rose late and had a leisurely start to the day. Around the hotel I incidentally noted downy woodpecker, great egret, and American crow. Our morning and early afternoon were taken up with non-birding stuff, but we drove up to an area north of town and noted cattle egrets on the way.
At the Diamond Oak Ranch some fifteen minutes north of Ocala I spotted turkey vulture, red-shouldered hawk (generally calling in any natural or semi-natural area), tufted titmouse, gray catbird, blue jay, large numbers of palm warblers (which had apparently just arrived the week before), Eastern bluebirds, Carolina wrens, American redstrt, Northern cardinal, red-bellied woodpecker, and Northern mockingbird.
With late afternoon open for a little birding, we shot over to the Ocala Municipal Airport, where old reports suggested burrowing owls might be found there. I spoke to an administrator and he indicated he had seen some owls there a few months earlier, but not since, and not in areas that could be seen from publicly accessible land. We drove to a random viewpoint and took a desultory look but saw only American kestrel, rock pigeons, and mourning doves; an unseen Eastern towhee also called from some scrub.
Sunday the thirteenth: We drove into the Ocala National Forest and visited the Salt Springs Recreation Area. I had had limited time to research birding sites around Ocala and did not find much online; we were disappointed to find the Recreation Area primarily given over to RV parking. However, there was a nice trail that made a loop, and although the forest there was pretty quiet, it made for a pleasant walk. I did get a very good look at a white-eyed vireo, and outside the park we saw crows chasing a red-tailed hawk.
As usual, when an established park proves disappointing, a nearby country road offers salvation. We took a side road off the 314 just south of Salt Springs and got out of the car to a chorus of at least four or five red-headed woodpeckers. They were conspicuous, active, and gloriously beautiful, of course. A female vermillion flycatcher perched up nicely, repeatedly dipping its tail, in a way reminiscent of a phoebe. I also tracked a pine warbler by its song to where it was working through some pine branches. Finally, we heard a pileated woodpecker; later, back at the hotel, we would see one flying over a fairly dense strip-mall-infested area on the edge of Ocala where our hotel was located.
Later, we got an early start back to the airport in Gainesville, and on the way took a minor detour to an overlook I had noted on the trip in. We were on the 441 passing through Payne Prairie Preserve State Park, and the overlook was a short boardwalk on the east side of the road. Unsurprisingly, an osprey, a great blue heron, and a few boat-tailed grackles were the first birds seen. When I set up a scope on the platform at the end of the boardwalk, however, I almost immediately hit upon the prize sighting of the trip – an unexpected juvenile snail kite! The flat coloration of the mantle and uppertail (until the white base was exposed), streaked underparts, and slender curled bill all lent themselves to scrutiny through the scope. While I was watching the bird flapped and vaned its wings, and defecated.
One or two adults were also viewed in flight in the area. The juvenile was atop the bare branches of tall shrubs, which also featured a nest – but whether it was the nest of the kites could not be determined.
(I researched the occurrence of snail kites at Payne Prairire and learned that they had first been detected only the year before, with a single nest found with three chicks. It appears that the decline of local Florida apple snails, the kites’ main food source, had lately been offset by the presence of an invasive species of apple snails that were markedly larger and more prolific. The kites’ population has rebounded to some extent and – even more interesting – the individual birds are developing larger size and longer bills to match their new food source.)
More searching turned up double-crested cormorants, a female Northern harrier, and several limpkins.
We next stopped at Sweetwater Wetland Park, where waders were the order of the day. Common gallinules were appropriately common. Little blue herons – both adult and juvenile – were found. An anhinga sat on the boardwalk railing, and stayed there preening itself even when I walked directly past it. Several tricolored herons and glossy ibis were present. A couple of red-winged blackbirds sang, and a snowy egret was found. Finally, a yellow-crowned night-heron and a common yellowthroat were spotted.
With that, we decided to head for the airport and get out of the by-now-truly-punishing sun. Although the trip had not been intended to be a birding trip, the discovery of the snail kites made for a memorable visit to the Gainesville area.