Florida ’12 Part 3: To the Gulf and Beyond

April 15-

After our trip to the Tortugas, we drove all the way back to Florida City in one night (a long trek) and in the morning we set off on the longest sector of the trip.  Today in particular was going to be crazy, as we were going to pack in 5 hours of total driving to make it up to the city of Parrish, 40 minutes south of Tampa (where my Aunt lives) by the night.  However, we had a couple of stops planned to turn this into a productive day of birding.  The first portion of driving was the Tamiami Trail, a highway that cuts straight across the Everglades.  Almost immediately we pulled off the road as we were noting a huge movement of birds.  White Ibis, Tricolored Heron and Anhinga were flying by in large numbers along with my life Wood Storks.  We were able to see all these species directly overhead and were very excited for what else we might see along the road.  Strangely this one spot was the only one we saw with this quantity but there were other nice surprises in store.

Wood Stork

One of my main targets on this road was Snail Kite, but scanning endlessly did not turn up this elusive Everglades hunter.  There was a large abundance of other birds of prey though; hundreds of Turkey and Black Vultures and multiple Red-shouldered Hawks.  The Road also produced our first couple of ‘gators and a nice Florida Softshell Turtle that had hauled itself up on the riverbank.

We had no idea how many more were coming….

Once out of the Everglades we briefly stopped in Ft. Myers where we were visiting my Dad’s college friends.  A Gray Kingbird showed outside their house and there were beautiful Yellow-crowned Night Herons nesting outside their bedroom window.

Nesting Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Our next stop was Sanibel Island and the famous “Ding-darling NWR”.  On our way in a Bald Eagle flew low over the car and once in the refuge my life Swallow-tailed Kite swooped briefly over.  It was a quick look of such a beautiful bird, but that wouldn’t be the last one we’d see on the trip.  We began the 4 mile wildlife drive (a little like Brigantine) and bird activity was low- we saw a nice Little Blue Heron and were surprised by a few Red-breasted Mergansers in the first pool.  Things picked up along the second pool- I spotted a few of my life Common Ground Doves along the road and a nice Mottled Duck swam right by us.

Little Blue Heron

Common Ground Dove

Mottled Duck

Another LBH

The 3rd pool was a lot more active.  A large shorebird flock full of Dunlin, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher and Semipalmated Plover were feeding in the shallows and further back the larger waders fed- a beautiful Reddish Egret prancing in its characteristic feeding display and and a large group of Roseate Spoonbills!  The Egret was a lifer and although I had seen a Spoonbill before (one showed up at Brigantine 2 years ago) this was a far better look and here they were in their natural habitat!  A few Osprey were also hanging around and were pulling up some decent sized fish.

Reddish Egret

A kind of overexposed shot of the Spoonbills

Osprey

In the final leg of the drive we walked a quick mangrove trail, getting good looks at a lot of common waders and a few Spotted Sandpipers.  On our way out we saw a really nice Cape May Warbler foraging in a tree.  We then met up with my  Mom, stopped for dinner and drove up to Parrish in the dark.  A lot of driving, but overall a great day!

Tricolored Heron

Spotted Sandpiper

Cape May Warbler

April 16-

After a few crazy days of driving, our first morning with my aunt we just relaxed and enjoyed her backyard.  However, we still got birds out of it- Lots of Vultures, Wood Storks, and a few Bald Eagles catching the thermals over her neighborhood, a flyby Spoonbill, and best of all, multiple Black-hooded Parakeets, a life bird.  We decided to walk around her neighborhood after a while, which she said held a couple of ponds and farm fields.  That turned out to be an excellent idea.  At the first pond we were rewarded with a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks sitting right on the shore!  Totally unexpected!  An Anhinga and a Mottled Duck were also present at this small man made pond completely surrounded by houses, lawns and pools.  Whistling Ducks don’t come into the far south of Florida, so the fact we saw them here was really fortunate.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Further along the loop we came across a field of horses that also held a surprise- a Sandhill Crane.  Although further away than most of the birds we saw it was a nice look at a bird I haven’t seen since 2010.  The next pond had closer Roseate Spoonbills, Snowy Egret, and Glossy Ibis!  Wow!  This was one neighborhood I would definitely buy a house in!

Roseate Spoonbill- I had never noticed the mustard yellow tail before.

When we got back to the house, our Aunt took us to Siesta Key beach for the afternoon.  Siesta Key was voted the #1 Beach in America last year and it was easy to see why.  Yes, I would rather have been birding, but the glorious sand and amazing water made it fun!  It was by far the best saltwater I’ve ever swam in, and impressive waves made it even better!  Plus it was the Gulf- a new body of water for me.

Nonetheless, there were birds.  Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Willet, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone were present as always, but the real stars here were the Terns.  Both Royal and Sandwich Terns were quite abundant, and at one point my dad and I walked down to a large mixed flock on the beach and got incredible looks at both species.  Even better than Cape May!

Tame Willet

Tame Sanderling

And lots of tame Royal Terns

Royals

Look at that!

For some reason, I love this picture

Sandwich Tern

My Dad’s currently working on a painting of these guys….

We unfortunately had to leave before sunset, but sort of enjoyed it on the ride back.

April 17-

I had the day with my Mom and Aunt because my dad was obliged to take my little brother to Legoland (though I’m sure he was MORE than willing).  My Mom and Aunt aren’t birders but appreciate nature and THEY were more than willing to help me out in some birding.  So that’s what we did.  I had gotten a tip off the day before from fellow young birder Alex Burdo that Fort De Soto park, near my Aunts house, was a good birding spot and may hold a few birds I was looking for.  I was mainly looking for Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, but I would take anything I could find.  We started on one of the fishing piers that was flanked by 2 beaches.  After eating a quick lunch I started birding.  Tons of Brown Pelicans were on the water, and the beach held a lot of shorebirds, though unfortunately none of the ones I was looking for.  There were, however, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover, and Dunlin.   On our way to the car to go to our next spot we stumbled upon an awesome Eastern Coachwhip (snake) crossing the path.

Nice Male Pelican

Feeding SBDO

Eastern Coachwhip!

Along the road I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike 

Loggerhead Shrike

We walked a brief trail through some pine/palmetto woodland and came across a Pileated Woodpecker and a few Palm Warblers and American Redstarts.  The parking lot area had access to a sweeping inlet spotted with Mangrove which, extremely far out, was dense with birds.  I did a very extensive scan but most birds were too far out for a positive ID.  I did manage to pick out American Oystercatcher, Marbled Godwit, Reddish Egret, Great Blue Heron and both egrets, but the amount of birds lost in the haze was frustrating.  We were planning on going back to the other side of the park to do a different trail, but I made a snap decision instead to bird the beach and mudflats in a small cove at the very tip of the island park.  This turned out to be a great move.  As my mom and aunt relaxed I made a sweep along one side of the marshy bay, picking up more Marbled Godwits, lots of Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, Reddish Egret, but unfortunately none of my targets.  Getting desperate now, as I would soon be leaving the park, I looped back planning on doing the other side on the small bay.

My mom and aunt were ready to go, but I convinced them to give me 20 minutes to quickly go through one more area.  They agreed, and I rushed off onto the mudflats once again.  Quickly I came across a birder photographing shorebirds, who told me there was a Long-billed Curlew further along the sandspit I was on, in a grassy area.  I had seen Long-billed Curlew before in Utah, but this was exciting, as I hadn’t expected to see this unusual wintering shorebird down here.  Further down, I came across two more birders scoping the mudflats.  They told me the Curlew had been hanging around this area but they hadn’t seen it in a half hour.  They did tell me though that there were a few Wilson’s Plovers at the end of the sandspit.  So I kept moving.  I hadn’t gone 6 feet when a gorgeous Long-billed Curlew ran out in front of me from the grass.  Wow!  I began photographing this extreme shorebird, and as I did so I noticed another smaller bird behind the curlew.  I raised my Binns- and it was a Wilson’s Plover!  I spent about 10 minutes with both of these shorebirds, who continued to run right by me!  I was ecstatic!  Soon, though, I knew I had to head back.  I thanked both birders and ran to catch up with my mom an aunt.  A highly successful leg of the trip.

Marbled Godwit

Long-billed Curlew!

Wilson’s Plover!

This Shrike was right outside my Aunt’s house when we got back

– BM

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