Oliver’s Birding Blog | Florida 2019

Feb 14

After months of waiting, the day finally came when we drove to Southern Florida, a 20-hour drive from Chicago. Just about 4 hours into the trip, I spotted a field covered in white specks. They were Snow Geese; thousands of them! I immediately started looking with my binoculars outside the passenger window for Ross’s, and amazingly, in the few seconds I had to view the flock, I found 6 Ross’s Geese flying with the Snows! The rest of the day was quite slow, although a Bonaparte’s Gull flying over a lake in Kentucky was cool.

Feb 15

The day started with a quick ten-minute search of birds around our hotel in Macon, GA, which turned up the only Chipping Sparrows of the trip as well as the first Carolina Wrens and Carolina Chickadees! After 4 hours of driving – with not very many birds – we decided to stop at Silver Springs SP in Marion County, Florida, where we got our first taste of Florida birds. The sounds of calling Tufted Titmice and Northern Mockingbirds radiated throughout the forest, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted through the trees, meanwhile Tricolored and Little Blue Herons fished in the crystal clear stream that flowed beneath the boardwalk. It was also quite exciting to find Brown Anoles scurrying throughout the park as well as many butterflies such as Phaon Cresent, Cloudless Sulphur, and Juvenal’s Duskywing! On the last leg of the drive, we were treated to more Florida birds such as White Ibises and Cattle Egrets. We finally made it to my grandparents’ house in Estero, FL at around 8:00 PM. Almost immediately, I had the first mystery “bird” of the trip. I heard a clicking sound; it sounded just like a Virginia or King Rail. I was delighted! However, something didn’t add up. The habitat wasn’t quite right for a rail, and it sounded a bit too quiet for one. But it couldn’t be a frog? Could it? I was determined to find out more, so I posted a short recording to the ABA Facebook group “What’s This Bird?”, I also texted my friends. At first, most seemed to think that it was, in fact, a King Rail. But after some discussion, the consensus was that it was just a Southern Cricket Frog. Oh well, at least it was a lifer frog!

Southern Cricket Frog audio

Feb 16

Still recovering from the long drive, we decided to spend today around my grandparents’ house. I did some birding in their neighborhood and found some Mottled Ducks swimming a nearby pond as well as a kettle of vultures which also happened to have a single Wood Stork and a few Anhingas with them. The local Loggerhead Shrikes & Northern Mockingbirds were out and about today, and a surprise Broad-winged Hawk was seen near the entrance to the community.

Feb 17

Sanibel Island

We headed out early to go to Gulfside Beach on Sanibel Island. The recent reports of Snowy Plover there had me excited – as I missed SNPL last time I was in Florida. The very first birds seen at the beach were about 30 Black Skimmers flying over the ocean – the first lifers of the trip (another bird I somehow managed to miss last year). I scanned the beach for shorebirds, but only saw a few Willets resting on the beach about a quarter mile in the distance. As I walked towards the Willets, I saw hundreds of Sanderlings, some Black-bellied Plovers, many Ruddy Turnstones, and a VERY close Snowy Egret & Lesser Black-Backed Gull. However, no Snowy Plovers. I continued scanning, when a small Calidris sandpiper (A.K.A peep) came into view amongst the Sanderlings, with black legs and a drooping bill – it was a Western Sandpiper! Although I saw this species last time, I never had a chance to photograph it, so it was pretty exciting to snap some pics of this species! Unfortunately, just after seeing the sandpiper it was time to go, I had dipped on Snowy Plover yet again!

We next headed over to the famous J.N. Ding Darling NWR. When we got there, we decided to take a hike on a short boardwalk through the Mangroves. Birds were calling everywhere, although the dense mangroves made it all but impossible to see them. Suddenly, a bright yellow bird popped out in the open just feet from me. It was a Prairie Warbler, the first of the trip, and another bird I have never been able to photograph before! We walked back to our car and started driving the Wildlife Drive. At the Observation Tower, we found lots of birds including Dunlin, Wood Stork, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, and a singing Prairie Warbler! We got back in the car and drove about 50 feet until we spotted a group of photographers. I got out and asked what they were photographing. They pointed to the ground – amazingly a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was hunting just 10 feet away! I got eye level with the bird and started shooting. Somehow, of the over 100 pics I got, only a few turned out really nice. Next, we stopped at a short boardwalk where we were treated to Horseshoe and Mangrove Tree Crabs. We ended our Ding Darling adventure at Caulsa Shell Mound Trail, where we found an Ovenbird running on the ground at the beginning of the trail, and 3 North American Racers (a type of snake) throughout the path.

As we were leaving the island and crossing the Sanibel Causeway bridge, my 8-year-old brother joked, “look, a Magnificent Frigatebird!”. I raised my bins to play along with the joke but I was amazed to find that it actually WAS a frigatebird flying about a half mile away! We pulled over at a closeby parking area so I could get some documentation shots. Soon we saw another frigatebird, and another, and another. It seemed as though they were everywhere! One flew right above us giving great looks and a fair photo op!

Feb 18

Babcock-Webb WMA

The alarm clock rang at 5:00 AM today (which felt early because I’m used to central time). After quickly getting my stuff together, my dad and I headed out to Babcock-Webb WMA, in search of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (I’ll refer to these as RCWO in here), Brown-headed Nuthatches, and perhaps we would get lucky and find an uncommon Bachman’s Sparrow. We arrived at 6:30. Immediately, I heard Common Gallinules and hundreds (if not thousands) of Red-winged Blackbirds right at the pay station! Babcock-Webb is a vast place, 37 miles of roads and over 80,000 acres in total! Good thing I knew where to find the woodpeckers, otherwise, I would have no shot at them. We immediately headed to the RCWO spot along Oil Well Grade because I knew they only came out early in the morning for about ten minutes every day. We stopped when we spotted trees with red bands around them (meaning they contained man-made nest boxes) and at the sign titled “RCW”. It was now 7:00 AM, when they usually start to come out, yet after twelve minutes of intensive searching, we had found/heard none – just hundreds of Pine and Yellow-rumped warblers. Finally, at 7:12 AM, a woodpecker flew directly over me and landed on a nearby tree! I put my bins up to confirm, and sure enough, it was a RCWO! I quietly told my dad to come over and watch the bird while I ran to get my camera. As I was running to the car, I spotted two more RCWO on some trees in the distance. I grabbed my camera and ran back to my dad finding yet another RCWO on the way back. Now with my camera, I happily found out that the original bird was still there, allowing for a decent photo. Suddenly, the activity seemed to halt, even the warblers were quiet. We searched for more RCWOs, but none were to be found for the rest of the day. Soon, we met a few other birders looking for RCWOs. Unfortunately, we were the only people to see them. Now to search for my ultra-nemesis bird, the Brown-headed Nuthatch. I have looked for this bird four times in the past and missed it every time. The time was now 7:35, and we had to leave by 9:15. So, we started driving slowly through the refuge. A quick stop at a marsh netted us our only Lesser Yellowlegs of the trip, as well as lots of waders such as herons, egrets, and Wood Storks. Just before the intersection of Oil Well Grade and Truckers Grade, a Limpkin gave us some nice views, letting us get within 20 feet of it! We stopped every half mile or so at prime habitat for Brown-headed Nuthatch. Frustratingly, all we could find were more and more Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers. This is one of the only times I have ever been annoyed about too many warblers, lol. Hope seemed to be fading for the nuthatch. We had been searching for an hour and fifteen minutes and drove 7 miles with no luck; the best bird during that time was a brief look at a Snail Kite. We decided to hit one more spot before leaving- a patch of pines next to the shooting range. We scanned for 10 minutes, but had no success. We started to drive out of the refuge and stopped at a little pull-off where Boat-tailed Grackles were displaying. I was upset; I had yet again missed my nemesis bird. My dad suggested we go back and try one last time, as we still had 5 minutes until we had to leave. I wasn’t going to say no. So we went back to the area around the shooting range. I then heard a delightful sound – the sound of what I thought was a Brown-headed Nuthatch. I quietly played the nuthatch call on my phone to double-check, and sure enough, it was! I was so excited, but I still wasn’t going to be content without seeing the bird. About a minute later, a nuthatch flew overhead and landed on a tree a couple hundred feet away. Suddenly, another flew in a bit closer, and one more started calling. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Corkscrew Swamp

After leaving Babcock-Webb, I kept my eyes open for a Snail Kite on I75 around Punta Gorda so that I could get a better look for my year list. Amazingly, I found one, hunting in the marsh in the median of the highway! We picked up the rest of my family and headed to another famous birding spot, Corkscrew Swamp Preserve. Both times I’ve been to Corkscrew, the birds did not meet my expectations, but the swamp is beautiful, and the plants there are worth the trip alone! The roads just south of Corkscrew can sometimes have Crested Caracara (that would be a lifer for me), so I kept an eye out for them and asked my family to notify me of any hawks. Mystery bird #2: Suddenly, my sister said, “LOOK! Hawk in the tree on the right!”. I put my bins up and was confused. I could not figure out what it was. We couldn’t stop because it was a busy road, but my dad pulled a u-turn so I could try to get a pic with my camera. I managed to get a few photos. The GISS resembled a Red-tailed Hawk. However, something didn’t look quite right. I posted the photos again to What’s This Bird and the discussion was really interesting. The bird I saw happened to be a “Florida” (umbrinus) Red-tailed, apparently a darker (A.K.A. rufous) morph.

Shortly after seeing the hawk, we arrived at Corkscrew. The first half of the boardwalk was slow, maybe eight species. However, the birding picked up on the second half of the loop, with a well hidden Barred Owl. This was another bird I’ve seen but wasn’t able to photograph until today. Next, passerines started showing up, “Northern Parula! White-eyed Vireo! Gray Catbird! Black-and-white Warbler! Common Yellowthroat!” We had finally come upon our first pocket of passerines! Continuing down the boardwalk, my mom, sister, and 4-year-old brother walked ahead as my dad, my 8-year-old brother, and I stayed to look for more birds. We ended up getting a good look at a Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, among others. We decided to get back to the visitors center and see if we could find the Common Ground-Doves and Painted Buntings that are usually there. We saw the dove but no buntings in sight. When we met up with the rest of my family, my mom had notified me that they had seen a pair of Painted Buntings about a quarter mile back on the boardwalk at some feeders. I decided to give it a shot, and luckily they were still there as well as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird! I walked back to the visitors center, which to my annoyance, had 2 Painted Buntings and an Indigo Bunting right at the feeders!

Feb 19

Delanor-Wiggins Pass SP

We didn’t have anything planned for today, so we thought we would try going to Delanor-Wiggins Pass SP. On the way there, I spotted a Glossy Ibis with some White Ibises. Somehow, this was our only Glossy of the trip! Although we didn’t find anything too special at Delanor-Wiggins, it was nice to see Black Skimmers and another Magnificent Frigatebird. The rest of the day was spent getting ready for Miami and the Everglades.

Feb 20

Northern Everglades and Crandon Park

We left Estero and headed for Homestead. There were many birds in the endless marsh (A.K.A. Everglades) along I75 – perhaps the best was another Snail Kite. Word had gotten out that a Thick-billed Vireo and a Western Spindalis had been found at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. I pleaded with my family to take me there, and they were okay with it! We got to Crandon Park at 1:45 PM. As soon as we entered the park, we saw Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas, the fastest lizard on earth! And even though they are an introduced species, it was pretty cool to see! I knew the birds were at the northern end of the park but didn’t know precisely where. Luckily we ran into another birder. He said he had just seen the Thick-billed Vireo and had last seen the Western Spindalis an hour ago. Thankfully, he walked us to the spot where he had seen both. Suddenly, I heard a strange bird song, not like one I had ever heard before. I said, “Oh! Is this it [the Thick-billed Vireo] calling right now?” I asked. The birder confirmed that it was the Thick-billed Vireo singing! About fifteen minutes after the birder left, the Thick-billed Vireo was singing non-stop in some very thick brush. I was getting annoyed; the vireo was SO close, but yet it wouldn’t pop up in the open! Then, hundreds of elementary school kids walked by. For the next 15 minutes, I couldn’t hear any birds amongst the noise. I thought I had lost the vireo. I wasn’t going to give up though. I tried an area where it seemed a bit quieter, but I saw no birds there. By the time I got back to the original spot all the kids had left, and birds started showing up. First, an Eastern Phoebe began calling then the THICK-BILLED VIREO started singing again! This time just off the trail, looking frantically for the bird, I finally located it in a small bush. The bird was super friendly. At times it would get too close for my camera! Everyone in my family got great looks at the bird as it hopped around, and sung! I then tried to find the Western Spindalis but had no luck. After that exhilarating experience, we went back to the car to finish the drive to the hotel. Today would undoubtedly be a day I’d never forget!

Feb 21

Southern Everglades

This was a day I was looking forward to for a long time. Today was when we would explore Everglades NP. I had two targets here, Black Rail (BLRA) and Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow (CSSS). The former being a very cryptic bird that can sometimes be heard giving its distinctive “kee-kee-derr” call early in the morning (1 hr to 45 mins before sunrise) along ‘Research Road’. And the latter being endemic to the Everglades which can only be reliably found between sunrise and 3 hours afterward, about 0.6 miles South of the Mahogany Hammock turnoff on Main Park RD. This Seaside Sparrow is much easier to hear than see. I’d describe its call as hoarse Red-winged Blackbird, “TCheeee”.

My dad and I left our hotel in Florida City at 5:00am to head to Research RD in search of the BLRA. As soon as we got to the spot, we immediately started hearing Common Gallinules and Killdeer. A little later, I heard the grunt calls of a (this time real) King Rail. We walked up and down the road listening for BLRA to no avail. Eastern Meadowlarks & Northern Cardinals started singing, the marsh birds grew quieter, and sunrise was soon. We needed to get to the spot for our top target of the day, the CSSS!

We entered the habitat of the CSSS at 7:15am. Almost immediately, I spotted a small dark sparrow fly low across the road, and start giving a series of high-pitched chip notes. I had my suspicions that this was a CSSS but wasn’t confident so we continued. We parked at a small pull-off for Sweet Bay Pond and walked north along Main Park RD. About 3 minutes after we started searching, we heard a very distinctive “TCheeee”; “CAPE SABLE SEASIDE SPARROW,” I quietly exclaimed! We soon realized that two birds were singing, and although both birds were quite far away, I still managed to get an identifiable recording! We continued hiking up the road, after about .25 miles of walking I caught a sparrow briefly fly up then fly back down out of the corner of my eye. The bird sang and was another CSSS!

Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow audio

While filling up on gas on the way on our way back to the hotel, I noted 2 Common Mynas (the first of the trip). Although they are non-native, they still count. With the rest of my family now with us, we were ready to continue our Everglades adventure! Our first stop was Anhinga Trail, at the start of the boardwalk, a very friendly Double-crested Cormorant sat on the railing as we walked by. Soon we saw a fascinating looking Florida Gar; a Purple Gallinule hopping across the lily pads; an Anhinga that acted like a watersnake; and a very surprising Western Kingbird that flew overhead. Walking farther down the boardwalk, we found Florida Red-bellied and Peninsular Cooters (Turtles); of course, lots of American Alligators; and another Purple Gallinule. We then went down the Gumbo Limbo that split off from the boardwalk into the woods. We were surprised to hear a Barred Owl calling in the distance. Another highlight was two Julia Helicornians (a type of Brushfoot butterfly), flying gracefully throughout the woods.

About a tenth of a mile in, we decided to turn back and head to our next stop, Long Pine Key Nature Trail. Situated in a Pine Rockland habitat dominated by South Florida Slash Pine, Long Pine Key is a beautiful place. On the way in, we spotted a Large Orange Sulphur (butterfly) along the roadside allowing for a picture. On the nature trail, we saw no birds. However, the plant diversity made up for that, everywhere you looked, it seemed, you could find unusual plants! We then headed off to Flamingo, keeping an eye out for Swallow-tailed Kite, which had just arrived in the Everglades 2 days before. As we approached the West Lake parking lot, my dad yelled, “SWALLOW-TAILED KITE”. Luckily, I caught a glimpse of the bird just as it passed over our car. We promptly pulled over to see if I could get a pic, but unfortunately, the bird was gone. We then stopped at West Lake to see if maybe the bird would come back, and sure enough, it did! Although it was far away, I still was able to obtain a couple of photos. We got back in the car and started driving again, but we didn’t make it far until I spotted several Swallow-tailed Kites, right overhead. As we pulled over, I got lots of pictures. Although they were backlit, a few ended up being okay! After a couple of minutes of watching the kites, we started driving again. Within few minutes, we were in Flamingo. In the marina, we found West Indian Manatees as well as a very close Little Blue Heron and Brown Pelican. I then went over and scanned the bay for shorebirds; however, the only birds I saw were Ospreys, Black-bellied Plovers, and Laughing Gulls. A quick search of the Eco Pond for waders prooved to be unsuccessful, although we did find White-eyed Vireos and Prairie Warblers. After a long day in the Everglades, everyone was ready to go, and we started heading back along HWY 41 back to Estero. Along the way, I spotted a bird that resembled a kite, at first, I assumed it was Swallow-tailed, but it didn’t have the right tail, so maybe Snail Kite? But the plumage was off. As we got closer to the bird, I realized it was a White-tailed Kite! The third kite species of the trip! Later, as we drove through Big Cypress Preserve, my dad yelled, “Crested Caracara, on the side of the road!”. I luckily got a brief look at the bird as we drove past! A pretty cool bird to put an end to a great day!

Feb 22

Today was spent packing for the long ride home. However, around the entrance to the community, I spotted two Swallow-tailed Kites!

Feb 23

Today was the first day of the drive home. Birding overall was slow; however, the first Northern Harrier of the trip was seen flying over a field in South East Alabama.

Feb 24

The last day of the trip, again birding was very slow, another new bird was added for the trip list though, a Hermit Thrush in the brush outside of the hotel.

A final note, I missed Roseate Spoonbill on this trip. Last time it seemed as though they were everywhere! Perhaps this year just isn’t good for them, or maybe I’m just not good at finding them anymore.

SEE PAGE 2 FOR SPECIES LIST

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