We wake up to a clear blue sky in a new world, and dozens of American Robins are hopping around outside our rooms at The Desert Inn in Yeehaw Junction, while Cedar Waxwings drop into the bushes and a Red-shouldered Hawk looks down from the top of a telegraph pole. Heading north along Canoe Creek Road, a short stroll produces several Eastern Meadowlarks foraging in a pasture, with an Eastern Wood-Pewee on the fence wire and a Bald Eagle perched in a pine tree beyond.
Exploring the Sunset Ranch Trail, we enjoy a warbler fest, with good views of Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated and Palm Warblers, as well as Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. Other good sightings here include Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos and a Downy Woodpecker hanging from a strand of Spanish moss just yards away. Where the trail meets the shore of Lake Marian, the prolific birdlife includes a mixed flock of chattering Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, a flock of White Ibis probing their curved pink bills for food, a rare Snail Kite with a finely hooked winkle picker beak, and a fishing Osprey, while White Pelicans sail by and hundreds of Tree Swallows swoop and swerve overhead.
Back on the road north, the roadside wires provide perches for American Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Mockingbird and stunning deep blue and orange Eastern Bluebirds. Turning onto the sandy Joe Overstreet Road, we stop to admire the sulphur-yellow breast of a singing Eastern Meadowlark, pick up a group of American Pipits and watch a Sandhill Crane poking its dagger of a bill into a damp hole to ‘paint’ itself all over with the reddish mud. At the end of the street, the boat ramp yields oddly billed Black Skimmers among the Ring-billed Gulls and we watch a Crested Caracara feeding on the remains of a fish carcass. This is a great area for Bald Eagles, with up to five in the sky at any one time, and we even count a group of 22 Wild Turkeys, including three splendid males with an iridescent plumage, which gleams like a golden suit of armour, to win the vote for Bird of the Day.
Amazingly there is a frost first thing this morning with a chilly breeze from the northwest and so we need all our available layers! The key to the padlock on David’s case is broken, and so we call on the Fire Brigade in Fellsmere to break it open with a pair of bolt cutters, on our way north to Merritt Island. Along the Black Point Wildlife Drive there are waterbirds galore including Pied-billed Grebe, big flocks of White and Glossy Ibises, dozens of Tricoloured Herons, Blue-winged Teal and American Coots and a variety of waders such as Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, side by side, like Greenshanks and Redshanks back home. On the Scrub Ridge Trail, we watch the biggest flock of Glossy Ibises I ever remember seeing and get close and personal with a small gang of playful Florida Scrub-Jays, which pose nicely for our cameras. This star bird even lands on Tony’s head!
The cold front has now blown away leaving fluffy white clouds this morning for our visit to Lake Kissimee State Park, where our first birds are Chipping Sparrows foraging on a lawn, followed by a Carolina Wren in the tree above them. By the lake, some pishing draws out Common Yellowthroat and Swamp Sparrow, while Northern Harrier and Red-shouldered Hawks float by. On drier sandy ground, we find a small flock of Savanna Sparrows and spot a couple of dozen Wild Turkeys including a magnificent cock, with fanned out tail and puffed up feathers in full display to the hens till he is blue in the face. In a lifetime’s birding this ranks as one of the most remarkable images of them all.
Strolling by the lake and through the woods of this lovely tranquil park, notable sightings include Mourning Dove, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Parula, the only Pine Warblers of the trip and the fabulous Tufted Titmouse. This woodpecker heaven also gives us Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy and Downy peckers, simultaneously tapping away on different trunks within 15 yards of each other, and to top it all, we enjoy super views of a striking Pileated Woodpecker, North America’s largest and today’s star bird. As we watch through the scope at barely 30 yards, this powerful woodpecker with a punk style red hairdo hacks into the bark oblivious to its audience. To wind up another great day on the trail, hundreds of Fish Crows, with nasal calls like squeaky toys, fly over like Rooks do on their way to a communal roost.
Sadly we have to leave the rustic charm of The Desert Inn to drive west across the state to the gulf coast. En route we stop off at Myakka River State Park, where the trees are festooned with Spanish moss but surprisingly quiet for birds today. However, we do come across an Armadillo. Snuffling through the leaf litter, he is so engrossed in foraging he fails to notice us. At barely four yards, we can see every detail of this strange armoured mammal including his ‘wedding tackle’. The lake is more productive for birds where new ticks include Black-necked Stilt, Forster’s Tern and a Spotted Sandpiper still in immaculate winter plumage. We also find a family of quirky Limpkins, which are oversized Rails, and watch the parents wade in deep, pull out a snail with their long slightly down-curved bills and then return to the shore to winkle it out of the shell and pass it to a mini dinosaur chick standing between the parents’ legs. Even so, star of the show is the Swallow-tailed Kite mobbing a Bald Eagle. With a long scissor like tail and graceful flight, it must surely be the world’s most elegant raptor. No wonder it is the emblem of The Great Florida Birding Trail.
One of the top sites along the trail is The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where the boardwalk meanders through a primeval Cypress swamp forest and the wildlife is so tame and abundant it’s like strolling through a well-designed zoological garden, only this is the real thing. A couple of Racoons nonchalantly paddle their way under the boardwalk as we look down on them. Just yards from the boardwalk, and behaving as if we are invisible, is a varied collection of waterbirds including snake-necked Anhingas, Great Egret, Great and Little Blue Herons, Tricoloured Heron, Black and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, White Ibis and a massive Wood Stork, stirring up the mud with its feet, long bill open, ready for snapping shut on anything that moves. Other top birds here include Common Ground-Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Grey Catbird, a Carolina Wren singing from an open perch and another Pileated Woodpecker in the scope, with a wow factor which amazes the passing audience of boardwalkers. Also here is a feeding station, attracting American Goldfinch, Common Grackles with a purple sheen, staring white eyes and calls like playground swings in need of lubrication, and best of all, an incredible male Painted Bunting, with such a dazzling combination of the three primary colours it seems to glow!
Another top site on the trail is the ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, over on Sanibel Island. Squadrons of White Pelicans put on an airshow here, while another 70 odd on a sand bank reveal orange legs, bright yellow eye patches and a breeding bump on top of the long pouched bill. Among the hundreds of grey waders such as Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher and Willet, we pick out a couple of browner Marbled Godwit, before the whole lot explodes with a whoosh as a Peregrine swoops in for the kill. While here we also find Snowy Egrets, and our first Reddish Egret of the trip, and marvel at its frenetic hunting technique. On the Shell Mound Trail, Yellow-throated Vireo and Prairie Warbler are new birds for our growing list. By mid afternoon, we are at Bailey Tract, a small wetland on Sanibel with a healthy population of Mottled Ducks. Beside close ups of these relatives of the Mallard, we get our best views yet of a nice little male American Kestrel and enjoy a singing duel between two male Northern Cardinals, with very handsome bright red plumage, including a steeply pointed crest and a black face with a thick red beak.
Moving on south down the gulf coast, we stop off at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island, and immediately spot Wilson’s and Piping Plovers, as well as Sanderling and Western Sandpiper, which is like a scaled down Dunlin. Scanning a sand bar across the bay, we distinguish between Caspian Terns, with dark primaries when seen from below, and slightly smaller Royal Terns with paler undersides to the primaries, and even spot the unmistakable streamlined outline of a Magnificent Frigatebird cruising further out to sea. After lunch at the beach, we continue south to the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, where a Bald Eagle nest contains two almost fully fledged eaglets having a bad hair day, while the iconic adult on a nearby perch, looks down on us with its eagle eyes, while showing off long sharp talons and fine feather detail. What a star bird.
A Northern Mockingbird sings its heart out well before dawn in the grounds of The Grove Inn, and after breakfast it is a short drive into the Everglades National Park, where we make a bee line for the Anhinga Trail. The birds and Alligators are so tame here that the views and photo-opportunities are amazing. Double Crested Cormorants, with a tuft of feathers above each emerald eye, and Black Vultures, with naked wrinkled heads, perch on the handrail at arms length. While shaven pink headed Anhinga chicks are still in the nest, numerous dumpy little Green Herons in full breeding livery, stalk the water’s edge in search of food for their newly fledged young and then a pair of Purple Gallinules add even more colour to the show. In the shade of the nearby Gumbo Limbo Trail, we find another Great Crested Flycatcher and our only American Redstart of the trip. Driving southwest through the park to Flamingo at the end of the road, we spot a Short-tailed Hawk and come upon a breeding colony of Wood Storks by the hundred and also get our best sightings of brilliant pink Roseate Spoonbills. At the end of the road the almost dry Eco Pond produces more Black-necked Stilts and a Northern Waterthrush, which bobs along the water’s edge like a cross between a Dipper and a Redwing. By now Osprey’s have become a ‘car park’ bird and at the quay in Flamingo, there are also numerous Laughing Gulls, a smart Brown Pelican and a couple of basking American Crocodiles, showing far more teeth than the ubiquitous Alligators. On our way back to ‘civilisation’, we visit Mahogany Hammock, where, as well as having Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal and Blue Jay in the same tree at once, we find a White-crowned Pigeon and two big fluffy Barred Owl chicks, which look down at us quizzically with large ebony eyes.
It’s our last day and we have almost come to the end of the trail, but we still have time for Castellow Hammock Nature Park, where we stake out the feeders for a string of lovely birds. As well as previous favourites like Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Painted Bunting, Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle, we still manage to add to our list with White-winged Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Indigo Bunting. Last stop is Brian Piccolo Park. Although the park is unexplainably closed and padlocked, despite the sign saying open daily 8am – 10pm, we still manage to pinpoint our target bird in the scope through the fence. Once it disappears back down its burrow in the sports field, a shower of sand comes flying out, leaving us in no doubt that we have seen a Burrowing Owl. Now all we have to do is find our way back to Miami International Airport, but that’s another story.