A bit of history: Several years ago, my girlfriend and I did a two week tour of the southern parts of Florida. We started out down in the Keys, including a trip down to Ft. Jefferson, and worked our way up to Miami, Lake Okeechobee, over to Ft. Myers/Sanibel, and finally up to Tampa. As part of the trip, we spent a day on the beach in Miami Beach. It's not really my thing, but my girlfriend loves her beach time. We departed the next day to head up to Green Cay and the Loxahatchee area. When we arrived at Green Cay, I got out of the car and walked around the front of it; something I did not do at the hotel. The valet service had wrecked the car and damaged the front end. Of course, they disavowed all knowledge. I swore I'd never go back... and so begins this story.
I'm a programmer by trade. I can work anywhere I can get an internet connection. I don't even always need that. About once a year, I leverage this flexibility and take a work-cation. My girlfriend was heading to Mexico for a week; so, I took the opportunity to head to Florida (not Miami Beach) to plug some holes on my life list. The plan was to bird in the morning, work through the hot part of the day, and then slip back out in the evening.
My brother happened to be vacationing in Florida at the same time. He was up in Tampa, and I was starting my time down in Homestead. My first morning there, he drove down to meet me, and we headed out to hunt down a couple target birds. Our first stop was in Key Largo. There was a Yellow-green Vireo in the area, and Jeff needed one for his life list. The bird made it pretty easy. It called constantly. It took about 45 minutes and a pint of blood (does Off not work down there?) to track it down. The second target was a bit more difficult; too difficult in the end. A Zenaida Dove was being seen in an agricultural area north of Homestead. We spent an hour sorting through dozens of Mourning Doves and eventually called it a day. He needed to head north to spend time with his family, and I needed to work. No pics for the day, and no lifers for me. But, I was happy to help Jeff track down a lifer.
The next morning, I headed over to the Everglades. It was only 20 minutes from my hotel to the Anhinga Trail. I arrived at sunrise and found a single Anhinga and not much else on the boardwalk there. I did find hundreds of huge grasshoppers. Disappointed, I headed down to Flamingo to look for Shiny Cowbird and Osprey. Not only did I not find a single Shiny Cowbird, I didn't see any cowbirds - of any type. I had a couple flyover Osprey, but they were pretty scarce, too. I was rewarded with an array of Red-shouldred Hawks and even some nice Swallow-tailed Kites, though. I also had my only shot of a Snail Kite here.
I was back at the hotel a little before 11 AM and worked through the rest of the day. I headed down to Marathon in the late afternoon. I had two lifers I wanted to track down in the area. The first was Roseate Tern. The government building in Marathon hosts a tern colony on its flat roof. Among the dozens of Least Terns (and some Common Terns) are a few Roseate Terns. It took nearly an hour, and I was about to give up, when a large (by comparison) all-white tern with a long forked tail and black cap came sailing in for a few turns and then departed. Lifer #1 - check! I headed over to the airport next for my second target. There's a night hawk there that gives it's call in three short "beeps". I couldn't find a good place to park near where the birds are normally reported and ended up just parking at the terminal parking lot. In the end, it turned out to be a great place. As I was standing there, I could hear the call coming from somewhere and was frantically searching the sky. When I finally located the pair of nighthawks, they swooped in directly overhead and circled for several minutes. Antillean Nighthawk/lifer #2 - check! I probably should have had the camera out, but the lighting was pretty low anyway.
It's 6:05 AM. I'm about 2 hours from my hotel, and I'm in Miami Beach... what happened? The evening of 6/26, a Red-legged Thrush was reported in Miami Beach. It's a pretty rare bird, and it was still being seen on 6/27; so, Jeff made the drive back down, and I made the drive to the place I swore I'd never go back. We actually had to wait for it to get light enough to bird. It did not take long to run into some other birders, and, in the end, they helped us find the bird. Let's just cut this short and get on with the pictures from that morning.
Oh, you wanted to see the Red-legged Thrush pictures?!
It's a "Code 5" bird (meaning it's terribly rare here in the US), and, if approved, will be only the third accepted record and only my second code 5; the other being a Crane Hawk in Texas in the '80s. It was gathering nesting material most of the time we were there. The bird became increasingly difficult to find throughout the day. A few days later, it disappeared entirely. I was happy to be in the right spot at the right time. I've seen this bird in Puerto Rico, but this is a different suspecies (the Bahama subspecies), and it's definitely the first I've seen in the US.
I said goodbye to Jeff and headed onward. Green Cay (deja vu) was my next stop. I remember a lot of close-up experiences with Limpkin, swamphen, and gallinule from my previous trip there. In the end, it was kind of a disappointing trip. 1) No Limpkin. 2) It's hard shooting from an elevated boardwalk and getting decent looking pics. 3) I was way over-lensed for here. A 600mm is not needed on the boardwalk.
The Atala Butterfly here are so beautiful.
I got some Anhinga shots! I also took one of my favorite shots of the trip here.
I left Green Cay and headed up to Loxahatchee - with a small diversion to handle a work emergency. It was midday when I arrived in Loxahatchee to search for my next lifer. Scrounging $5 from my pocket and stuffing it into an envelope, I paid my fee and set out into the heat to look for Smooth-billed Ani. I walked to the location where they were being seen and had nothing. I walked on down the dike a ways, and I still had nothing. Faintly, in the distance, I could her something calling. It took a while to figure out where the call was coming from, but I backtracked and finally found it. Across the canal, I found what I was looking for; a pair of Smooth-billed Ani hanging out in a large bush. Lifer #3/1 (one provisional) - check!
I left and drove across Alligator Alley and up to Fort Myers Beach. My plan was to hunt down Burrowing Owl just north of there in the evening light, but the skies opened up, and I spent the evening relaxing. I did treat myself to some Grimaldi's Pizza out of Fort Myers, and it was as good as I remembered it.
I had a loose plan for the day. Of my target lifers, I'd already moved through most of the list. This was just going to be a day to photograph and reposition for the next day. I started down by Lover's Key in the early morning light. Storms were still in the area, and lighting was low at times and beautiful at others, but the rain never came.
I was not sure what to think of one photo from the morning. A rainbow had formed out over the gulf. As I was shooting, I noticed a White Ibis flying out over the water. I timed the shot to capture the bird as it flew in front of the rainbow. I'm not great with bird-in-flight shots, but I managed to pull it off. When I got home, I saw the bird had blinked. I was a bit disappointed. I've accepted it for what it is - not perfect (in my mind), but still a nice shot of a bird flying in front of a rainbow.
I headed back to the hotel, grabbed my stuff, and hit the road for Cape Coral. They have a few Burrowing Owl up there.
A cop came by at one point, and I assumed I was in trouble. He asked if I was enjoying the owls and talked about how he really loved them, too. Then he told me where to find more.
While grabbing some food and planning my next stop, I shot a few White Ibis and Muscovy Duck shots at a small retention pond.
The day was really looking up, and it was overcast; so, I could still shoot in the middle of the day. I headed up to Babcock-Webb to search for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I didn't think I stood much of a chance. I pulled in and drove back to the spot where I'd had them before. I stopped the car and rolled down the window to listen. A couple minutes later, a family of four flew in and started working through the pine trees. I got really lucky. Incidentally, I think this is one of the most beautiful places in Florida. I love the mix of pine and palmetto, here.
Encouraged by my luck, I headed north for my next bit of target birding. Oscar Scherer SP was just a little further north, and it's a great place to see Floriday Scrub-Jay. What the guy at the front gate neglected to tell me (while harassing me for paying the entrance fee with a $20 - I'd already used my smaller bills at the two previous stops), was that the area for Scrub-Jays was closed. In his defense, I didn't mention I was there to see them. A bridge is being repaired, and the area where I've seen jays before is not accessible. I did get some consolation Gopher Tortoise shots. Look at those frightening teeth!
The storms moved in shortly after leaving the park, and I drove on up to Tampa in the rain. I wanted to finish the day at Fort De Soto with some evening shooting. The skies cleared shortly before I got there, and the light was a bit harsher than I would have liked. I had a lot of fun shooting here though.
I really wanted to see Reddish Egret here. Unfortunately, the one bird I saw did not stick around long. In the end, my favorite part of the evening turned out to be trying to shoot diving Brown Pelicans. I really need to work on birds-in-flight. I also need to upgrade to a faster camera body.
While shooting at Fort De Soto, I decided to look up a hotel near my target location for the next morning. I was a bit shocked to discover that Apopka is two hours away from Tampa. I still had not ate, and I knew I needed to be up at daybreak the next morning. I had a lifer to track down. I left Fort De Soto right as the golden hour set in and arrived in Apopka a little after 10 PM. Dinner was the dregs of the box of Frosted Flakes I had in the car and a bottle of water. It's not the most glorious of travel, but I enjoy it - mostly.
Today was another long day in the car. I was up at sunrise and at the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive shortly afterwards. I had no idea what to expect. All I really knew is that this place seemed like my best bet for Fulvous Whistling-Duck. The place reminds me a lot of Goose Pond, here in Indiana. Apopka is a lot bigger. It's also filled with alligators - some really big ones.
I finally got the shots of Anhinga that I thought I would get in the Everglades.
There were quite a few herons and egrets and even some Least Bittern and Wood Stork!
While photographing Wood Stork, I ran into Liz Kearley. Liz had approached me and asked what part of Texas I was from. The rental car had Texas plates. I explained that I was from Indiana and was there to look for Fulvous Whistling-Duck. I'd seen a couple flyby ducks, but I was hoping for better views and some photos. Liz knows the wildlife drive really well and was nice enough to explain where my best chances of finding them were. We periodically bumped into each other at different spots along the drive, and she kept me posted on where to look next. We finally arrived at a location shortly before the end of the drive, and she explained they were probably just on the other side of the bridge, where another person was shooting. Sure enough, there they were. Two adults and a small bunch of babies! They stayed in cover but eventually paraded out for a few shots. Lifer #4/1 - check!
I would really like to thank Liz for her kindness and sharing her knowledge of the place. I'm not sure I would have spotted the ducks, or at least just drove past the other photographer without looking, if not for her help. Thank you!
This was really about the highlight of the day. Most of the middle of the day can be summed up with one word: driving. I drove up to Ocala NF from Apopka and found a single Florida Scrub-Jay. I'd put the camera in the back of the car; so, no shots. It would not have mattered, anyway. It was sunny and in the harsh light of the middle of the day. The bird also only stuck around for about a minute before disappearing. There's no cell signal in the area, and I got lost for about 20 minutes. While searching for cell signal, I had a small, dark raptor fly up over the road and directly over the car. I was immediately suspicious, but it took about 30 seconds to convince myself to turn around. I headed back and found the bird circling very high up in the sky. I snapped a few ID shots and investigated them later that evening. My suspicions were correct. Dark morph Short-tailed Hawk/lifer #5/1 - check! I did not really expect to find this bird on this trip. There just does not seem to be one good location where they can be reliably viewed. After getting cell signal, I tried another location for Scrub-Jay but struck out. I drove past a couple areas in Gainseville to look for Snail Kite, but it was really hot, sunny, and mid-afternoon. I bailed on everything else and started the long trek up to St. Marks NWR.
St. Marks NWR was hosting the one bird that really brought me down to Florida for this week. An American Flamingo was there and had been for quite some time. When I arrived, the bird was in its standard location. It was distant, but I was happy to see it. A fisherman there was wondering what I was doing with the large camera. I pointed to the pink spot in the distance and explained that I was here to see the flamingo. I handed him my binocs, and he was surprised by what he saw. I don't think it sparked his interest in birding, but at least I got to share the joy of a rare bird with him. American Flamingo/lifer #6/1 - check!
I birded the area a bit more and picked up a few more birds for my trip list. The Seaside Sparrows were too distant to shoot, but I did find some Clapper Rail out for an evening stroll. I birded the area a bit more and thought I'd found my last new bird of the trip while booking a hotel for the night. A pair of Brown Thrasher were feeding in the grass near the parking lot I was in. Realizing how late it was and how far I still had to go (my flight home in a couple days was out of Panama City), I headed out of the park. As I was leaving I found my true last bird of the trip. A sleepy Great Horned Owl perched in a tree. It was a perfect omen for how I would feel when I finally arrived in Panama City.
7/1 & 7/2-
There's not much to report on. I spent the entire next day working out of the hotel room; 11 hours, to be exact. My flight on the 2nd left at 6:00 AM, and I was in Indianapolis by 10:30 AM and into work by 11:30. I worked the day and then went home to get some sleep.
I tallied a little over 100 species during my time in Florida. I'm sure it's possible to find a lot more in the time I spent birding here, if that was my goal. The goal was to fill in some gaps in my life list with a few specialties that can only be seen in this part of the country. I had six targets, and I hit them all. I even got a bonus provisional bird! I'd say I never need to come back to this area again, but, it turns out "never" just might mean "see you in a few years".
Thanks for reading,