Florida: Central and Southern Florida including the Keys and Dry Tortugas, April 7th-14th, 2013

Published by Mike Nelson (madbirder AT surfbirder.com)

Participants: Mike Nelson + two


This was a custom tour for a friend of mine who couldn't guide this couple as he had a conflicting tour and as I've been to Florida a few times I was able to help out. There has already been much published on Florida so I'm just covering the daily accounts.

Day 1

We began the day driving south to Fort de Soto from Tampa. Once on the island we headed to the east beach where we found Piping, Grey, Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers along with several other shorebirds including Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher and a pair of Least Terns.

In the mangroves behind us we found a Florida Prairie Warbler singing away that showed well a few times along with Indigo Buntings that were feeding in the short grass below the warbler. A shy White-eyed Vireo showed briefly before disappearing into the mangroves only to be hear singing his “quick..pick up a real chick” song.

We moved down by the old fort finding Hooded and Black-and-white Warbler as well as an Orchard Oriole and Eastern Towhee. A Loggerhead Shrike showed well on the power lines and we were overflown by quite a few Brown Pelican.

We checked the woods behind the visitor center and the fountains where we found an obliging Prothonotary Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Red-eyed Vireo, Indigo Buntings and a Summer Tanager.

From Fort de Soto we continued our way south across the bay to Oscar Scherer State Park to find the largest population of Florida Scrub Jays and only five minutes down the trail we found a pair calling back and forth across the sandy trail. We continued in following the trail but found little else as it had become quite hot.

After some lunch we drove south to Fort Myers where we found our spot for Snail Kite and while awaiting their arrival we were treated to several Limpkin crying out in the marshes and chasing each other around. Common Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe and plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds and Boat-tailed Grackle frequented the marsh here. After a while the slaty grey form of a male Snail Kite glided over the marsh soon followed by a female.

We ended the day in the pine forests of Babcock-Webb WMA where Bob found a roosting Common Nighthawk which looked quite impressive through the scope. We also came across several Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Towhee, Common Yellowthroat and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Day 2

We started the day at J.N. “Ding” Darling national park along the Indigo Trail. The black flies were out in force but some bug spray soon drove them off. We did find a nice Tricolored Heron and an active Black-and-white Warbler but it was fairly quiet so we moved over to the Baily Tract where we found several Black-necked Stilts, Blue-winged Teal, Grey Catbird, a singing Swamp Sparrow, a circling Magnificent Frigatebird, a Mottled Duck with some ducklings, Snowy Egret and others.

From here we continued south into the Everglades National Park stopping by Shark Valley where the paved trail next to the mangroves gave us great looks at nesting Anhinga (American Darter), American Alligator, several were sunning themselves next to the water, Purple Gallinule, Common Yellowthroat singing subsong from the close tangles of brush and reeds behind us. We also watched a Green Heron stretching itself from a tall snag in efforts to catch a meal which was quite entertaining. The heat eventually drove us to the comfort of the AC in the car and a drive to Florida City for the evening.

Day 3

We started early today with a long drive out into the sea of grass and palms that is the Everglades National Park. Our target was the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow that favors the grasses here. We stopped a few times to listen out for one eventually hearing one close by on the way back. We soon had it in the scope singing away from the side of the road. I played a little bit of its cricket like song which soon got its attention and it moved to a reed stalk near us and began to sing again. It soon dropped down into the reeds to forage for a bit before hiking back up another stalk where it swayed in the morning breeze before singing again.

After enjoying the sparrow for a while we headed to the huge breeding colony of Wood Storks at Paurotis Pond. There were several Roseate Spoonbills here breeding as well. We left here and went to the Anhinga trail. With the large amount of Black Vultures in the parking lots they hand out tarps to cover your vehicle so the guano doesn’t destroy the paint job. It was fairly quiet along the Gumbo Limbo Trail so we headed for the Anhinga Trail and it sure did live up to its name. There were vast amounts of these birds nesting in the mangroves. We also found a huge pull out for American Alligator where there must have been about 20 of these large reptiles. We got close ups of the Black Vultures as well as a few looks at Double-crested Cormorant. The heat was taking its toll on us and we had a ways to drive so we packed up and stopped by Robert is Here fruit stand for some cold smoothies before heading south driving along the long stretch of the keys to Key West for the evening. We did try for Antillean Nighthawk to no avail. A bit early I fear.

Day 4

Today we gathered at the Key West docks to load up onto the boat that would take us out to the Dry Tortugas. As we listened to the briefing about safety we all prepared to do some sea watching. Once the briefing was done and we loaded up we got some seats and waited as the boat pulled out into the gulf. Breakfast was served soon after and we ate a hearty morning meal before heading out onto the bow of boat to enjoy the ocean as it swept before us. Northern Gannets and a few terns sauntered by as we rose smoothly over the waves. For a couple of hours we whiled away the time out here before we began to get information over the p.a. system that we were getting close. We could see the light house on Loggerhead Key and soon our boat captain took us in close to the Masked Booby breeding colony on Hospital Key. Forty or so pairs breed here, the only location in the U.S. We also managed to catch many of the Magnificent Frigatebirds that circled the fort. A few Brown Boobies lingered on some of the reef markers and our first Sooty Terns began to pass the boat.

Soon we were docked and once the engines were quiet you could hear the high pitched roar coming from the thousands of birds at the Sooty Tern colony. They were interspersed with Brown Noddys and the racket was quite an auditory spectacle.

Soon as we were off we headed over to the spit of land leading to the colony and went as far as the beach closed sign that keeps people away from the colony. Here we got great looks at the many breeding pairs of terns that sat atop the many small bushes that dotted the grasses.

Along the shoreline we picked up Piping Plover and Ruddy Turnstone and slowly made our way over to the coaling docks to take in the many Brown Noddys that had taken up residence there. We scanned through the many birds that sat atop the rusting metal mooring posts but could not find a Black Noddy. We did find the corpse of a perished Brown Pelican though.

We decided to circle the forts outer wall where we could take in some of the brilliant fish in the water below. We also managed to catch a glimpse of several barracuda that hung out in the water close to the wall.

We then checked the south coaling docks where we found a nice Yellow-throated Warbler and Summer Tanager as well as several Cabot’s Terns and Black Skimmers along with several Brown Pelican. On the way to lunch we found a Northern Parula outside the boat hawking for insects in a lone bush.

The boat provided a nice lunch and soon after we headed into the fort itself. The huge brick walls hid the roaring of the ocean but also kept the breeze down and it was quite warm in here. We scanned the few trees and bushes as well as the grasses finding Cattle Egret, Glossy Ibis, American Kestrel, Prairie Warbler, a Green Heron and several Hooded Warblers. Quite a few Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were singing in the small trees along with a few quite approachable Summer Tanagers.

From the top of the walls we had a panoramic view around and close by frigatebirds and terns swooped past. We could take in the whole tern colony from up here and see the sheer numbers along the key. We took in some of the history of this old fort before we headed back to the boat for the long ride home. Along the way we were into the wind so it was a bit rougher on the waves but we did spook up a close Northern Gannet in juvenile plumage for those who hung out on the deck.
Soon enough we were back into Key West and after dinner we tried again for Antillean Nighthawk but still no sign of them yet.

Day 5

We spent a few hours this morning birding around our way back up to Miami stopping along the way for some Black-whiskered Vireos. The mosquitoes were out in force but we sprayed up and hung out till we found a soggy pair still wet from the spot of rain we got just as we arrived. We also stopped along the way for some White-crowned Pigeons that proved elusive but eventually I managed to get on in the scope.

In Miami we spent the afternoon looking for some of the introduced birds like Common Hill Myna, Nanday Parakeet and Rose-ringed Parakeet which we found but the Spot-breasted Oriole and Red-whiskered Bulbul remained unseen by us. We also visited a nice pathway through a golf course where we found Bronzed Cowbird and Purple Gallinule as the stars. A nice singing Brown Thrasher provided musical accompaniment while the more nasal songs of Red-winged Blackbirds seemed far less musical than the impressive repertoire of the thrasher.

Day 6

Today we headed north to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands and the boardwalk here provided us with some stunning views of Great Blue and Tricolored Heron on their nests along with Cattle Egret, Double-crested Cormorant and Anhinga all nesting in the same tree that projected out of the water.

From the boardwalk we could take in the racket of all the young begging for food. This vantage point also gave us great looks out onto the marshy areas where we found a Black-necked Stilt on the nest with the mate close by in attendance. There were several smart looking Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and at the back of the preserve we found a large colony of Wood Storks. The bright hues of a young Roseate Spoonbill added a splash of color along with a nice Glossy Ibis and a magnificent Purple Gallinule that was only feet from the edge of the boardwalk foraging. The real star was the Sora that Bob found skulking through the tall reeds below part of the boardwalk. With patience we all got some great looks at this tiny rail.

Our next stop was at Loxahatchee where we were treated to a real heron spectacle as hundreds of birds were gathered in the shallows of the cypress swamp to forage for small fish that were gathered just below the murky and algae covered surface. In one window into the swamp we counted roughly fifty birds among the myriad species like Wood Stork, White Ibis, Little Blue, Tricolored and Great Blue Heron plus Snowy and Great Egret. Roseate Spoonbills hung further back in the cypress where their vivid pink and red hues made them stand out. Even a Limpkin put in an appearance at the fish fiesta. There was also an American Alligator sitting in the shallows with several young perched up on her back. Whenever one of the herons would get too close she would lash out at them sending up a flurry of white feathers as several egrets scattered from her gaping maw.

The jockeying for best position was intense as beaks stabbed out at one another trying to drive one bird from a preferred perch. Crests were raised and much croaking between the birds was heard. The occasional flight from one of the Snowy Egrets across the surface would yield a small fish as it swooped across the water like a frigatebird with its bill down in the water to try and catch one of the small fry.

From here we drove north the Lake Okeechobee for the night.

Day 7

This morning we headed to the open palm and brush habitat of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve to look for more open area birds. We were stopped soon after entering the park by a pair of Northern Crested Caracara that performed really well giving us great looks. Plenty of Eastern Meadowlarks were singing and the occasional two note call of Northern Bobwhite could be heard in the distance. The Florida subspecies of Eastern Towhee with its white eye sang close by and we could see this distinct feature through the scope.

We took a path through the soft sandy soil and ankle high palms that had been burned over several times to listen out for our target. Out in the distance I could hear one sing, probably one of the best songs of any north American sparrow, Bachman’s. We could eventually hear two on either side of the track we were standing on and after a while we managed to get quite good looks at the closest one as it would rise up on a small snag and sing before dropping down into the palms again.
A lovely bright Eastern Meadowlark sang from an exposed snag close by on the way out affording us some great looks at the oft overlooked bird. It remained out on its snag for some time allowing us some great looks and pictures. The Caracaras didn’t disappoint on the way out either with a close bird sitting astride a fence post and despite our best efforts to spook it by creeping close to get a photo it just ignored us till we’d gotten our shots and left it to scan the surrounding prairie in hopes of food.

From here we went north to several spots to try and find Short-tailed Hawk but were unsuccessful but a stop at Three Lakes WMA yielded us the much sought after Red-cockaded Woodpecker after searching several spots. Our prior searching wasn’t all in vain though as we also found Red-headed Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, the local subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-eyed Vireo and some Northern Bobwhite that sprinted across the road in front of us. They did linger around enough to be seen briefly moving through the stunted palms.

We were due back in Tampa for the night so began our drive back which was uneventful though the bridge across the bay gave us good looks at Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull and Royal Tern plus on the other side an unexpected surprise in a parking lot was a Yellow-crowned Night Heron which popped up onto the roof of a small building for some nice looks for us all.

Day 8

Today we headed out to Honeymoon Island for some more shorebirds and seabirds. We arrived just before opening so hit one of the beaches where we got great looks at Black Skimmer, Laughing Gull, Least Tern, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher and a juvenile American Herring Gull.

Once the gate was open we headed to the Osprey Trail and walked this for quite a while picking up the expected Western Ospreys on their nests. We also had great looks at Eastern Towhee again as well as House Wren and Prairie Warbler. Grey Kingbird sang from the snags of dead trees and we nailed down a few of them as well as taking in the Bald Eagle nest and the two eaglets that were feathered out in nice dark chocolate plumage. The nest was attended by one of the pair while another sat in a close pine. Brown-headed Cowbird was picked up here for the trip having been missed till this time. A few migrant warblers were found here too with a heard only Yellow-breasted Chat and some great looks at Tennessee Warbler. We also had Pine, Palm and Hooded among the migrants. Indigo Bunting was also seen among the pines and we checked the mangroves for cuckoo but only yielded a Yellow-billed though this was still nice. The grassy areas were more overgrown with trees so there was little chance for sparrows.

Out on the beach the previous hurricanes had moved much sand and water and the pond that was once there was gone and the tide had come in so we spent just a short while here picking up Common Tern before heading back.

At the park entrance we stopped to check a small spit of rocks finding a Reddish Egret, Whimbrel some Grey Plovers and a Laughing Gull.

From here we stopped by Robert K. Ree’s park to check the marsh for Marsh Wren which were singing constantly and the “tick…tick…tick” of a Clapper Rail close by got our attention. I recorded that and played it back and the close call of them only feet into the marsh startled us as to its closeness. They were never seen but the burst of song was enough to know they were there.

We drove north up to Weeki Wachee to check for sparrows but there was a dearth of activity with only the sight of one bird in flight had. The consolation was a pair of Carolina Chickadees in their southernmost range extension.

We also checked close by Hernando Beach for Budgerigar but the small population might not be there anymore as we neither saw nor heard them but the constant drone of House Sparrow was heard everywhere and these aggressive cavity nesters may have pushed them out. We concluded with another suite of Marsh Wren next to the road before calling it a day and heading back to the hotel to rest and clean up before our farewell dinner.

Photos from this tour can be seen in my Florida 2013 Flickr Album

Sounds from this tour can heard at my Florida April 2013 Xeno-canto set.

Species Lists

1 Black-bellied Whistling Duck
2 Red-breasted Merganser
3 Mottled Duck
4 Mallard
5 Blue-winged Teal
6 Northern Bobwhite
7 Wild Turkey
8 Common Loon *
9 Pied-bill Grebe
10 Masked Booby
11 Brown Booby
12 Northern Gannet
13 Brown Pelican
14 White Pelican
15 Double-crested Cormorant
16 Anhinga
17 Magnificent Frigatebird
18 American Bittern
19 Great Blue Heron *
20 Great Egret
21 Snowy Egret
22 Little Blue Heron
23 Tricolored Heron
24 Reddish Egret
25 Cattle Egret
26 Green Heron
27 Black-crowned Night-Heron
28 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
29 White Ibis
30 Glossy Ibis
31 Roseate Spoonbill
32 Wood Stork
33 Black Vulture
34 Turkey Vulture
35 Osprey
36 Swallow-tailed Kite
37 Snail Kite
38 Bald Eagle
39 Northern Harrier
40 Cooper's Hawk
41 Red-shouldered Hawk
42 Broad-winged Hawk
43 Red-tailed Hawk *
44 Crested Caracara
45 American Kestrel
46 Merlin
47 Peregrine Falcon
48 Clapper Rail
49 Purple Gallinule h
50 Common Moorhen
51 American Coot
52 Sora
53 Limpkin
54 Sandhill Crane
55 Black-bellied Plover
56 Killdeer
57 Piping Plover
58 Wilson's Plover
59 Semipalmated Plover
60 Black-necked Stilt
61 Whimbrel
62 Willet
63 Ruddy Turnstone
64 Spotted Sandpiper
65 Sanderling
66 Solitary Sandpiper *
67 Least Sandpiper
68 Dunlin
69 Short-billed Dowitcher
70 Marbled Godwit
71 American Oystercatcher *
72 Laughing Gull *
73 Ring-billed Gull
74 Herring Gull
75 Lesser Black-backed Gull
76 Brown Noddy
77 Sooty Tern
78 Least Tern
79 Caspian Tern
80 Common Tern *
81 Royal Tern
82 Cabot's Tern
83 Black Skimmer
84 Rock Pigeon
85 White-crowned Pigeon
86 Eurasian Collared-Dove
87 White-winged Dove
88 Mourning Dove
89 Common Ground-Dove
90 Monk Parakeet
91 Nanday Parakeet
92 Mitred Parakeet
93 Yellow-winged Parakeet
94 Yellow-billed Cuckoo *
95 Barred Owl
96 Common Nighthawk h
97 Chimney Swift
98 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
99 Belted Kingfisher *
100 Red-bellied Woodpecker
101 Red-headed Woodpecker
102 Downy Woodpecker
103 Hairy Woodpecker
104 Red-cockaded Woodpecker h
105 Northern Flicker
106 Pileated Woodpecker
107 Great Crested Flycatcher *h
108 Eastern Kingbird
109 Gray Kingbird
110 Loggerhead Shrike
111 White-eyed Vireo
112 Black-whiskered Vireo
113 Red-eyed Vireo
114 Blue-headed Vireo
115 Blue Jay *
116 Florida Scrub-Jay
117 American Crow
118 Fish Crow
119 Purple Martin
120 Northern Rough-winged Swallow
121 Cave Swallow
122 Barn Swallow
123 Tufted Titmouse
124 Carolina Chickadee
125 Carolina Wren
126 House Wren
127 Marsh Wren
128 Brown-headed Nuthatch
129 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher *h
130 Eastern Bluebird
131 Gray Catbird
132 Northern Mockingbird
133 Brown Thrasher
134 European Starling
135 Worm-eating Warbler
136 Prothonotary Warbler
137 Tennessee Warbler
138 Northern Parula
139 Hooded Warbler
140 Black-throated Blue Warbler
141 Yellow-throated Warbler
142 Myrtle Warbler
143 Pine Warbler
144 Prairie Warbler
145 Palm Warbler
146 Black-and-white Warbler
147 American Redstart
148 Nashville Warbler
149 Louisiana Waterthrush
150 Common Yellowthroat
151 Yellow-breasted Chat
152 Eastern Towhee h*
153 Bachman's Sparrow
154 Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow
155 Swamp Sparrow
156 Northern Cardinal
157 Summer Tanager
158 Indigo Bunting
159 Red-winged Blackbird
160 Eastern Meadowlark
161 Common Grackle
162 Boat-tailed Grackle
163 Bronzed Cowbird
164 Brown-headed Cowbird
165 Orchard Oriole
166 Baltimore Oriole
167 House Finch
168 House Sparrow
169 Common Myna
170 Common Hill Myna

* = leader only
h = heard only