This trip report is an account of my first birding trip to the USA. I have included an annotated trip list (230 spp.) and a few photos which may be of interest. I make no mention of accommodation, car hire (I always use Holiday Autos.com wherever I go because I find them the cheapest), and flights etc, since such a wealth of suppliers are readily available. I pre-booked everything on the Internet with no problems whatsoever.
My choice of Fort Myers Beach (2 nights), Homestead (7 nts.), and Titusville (7 nts) as bases proved successful as visits to sites on both coasts, the Keys, and South and Central Florida were made possible without huge mileages being driven.
Most of the sites mentioned in this report are detailed in “A BIRDERS GUIDE TO FLORIDA; Pranty 1996, ISBN 87888-04-3”
The timing of this trip was dictated by my need to be in Kansas by the middle of April. If I had only been planning a trip to Florida I would undoubtedly have chosen to come at least two weeks later. However in saying that it might also be true to say that a trip taken just that little bit later would greatly reduce one's chance of catching up with a few lingering winter visitors such as Swamp and Savannah Sparrow, and some of the waders and other species that were seen on this trip.
(1.) Migrant Warblers (16 spp.) and other passerine migrants were few and far between and though this may have been a function of the weather conditions, the native birders I spoke to suggested that migration was liable to be a little slow at this time of year and there was a consensus that migration appeared to be getting a little later year on year, perhaps as a result of changing weather patterns. (?). My misgivings about the timing of this trip may well have been founded.
(2.) Waders (24 spp.) In terms of numbers, wader watching was generally a little disappointing and the two sites that I had most expectations of (Ding Darling and Merrit Island) were the most disappointing of all being virtually waderless over 1 and 5 birding days respectively. Ding Darling had no open areas of mud and at Merrit Island the impoundments were either full of water or bone dry. I added no new wader species to my trip list after spending a week birding daily at Merrit Island (mostly along black point Drive). Fort Myers Beach provided the best wader watching (5hrs over 2 mornings on 3 & 4 April at high tide), with 15 species being seen including Wilson’s Plover, Piping Plover, Marbled Godwit, American Oystercatcher, Long-billed Curlew, and Whimbrel, which were not seen elsewhere.
(3) Mainland Florida Specialities
• Anhinga - everywhere
• Magnificent Frigatebird - seen at Fort Myers Beach, over Key West, and at Ding Darling.
• Herons, Ibises etc - a few days birding the various sites in the Everglades NP and along the Tamiami Trail should produce most if not all of the expected species. I did not find Yellow-crowned Night Heron and only saw Reddish Egret at Fort Myers Beach. Least Bittern was easy to see at Viera Wetlands south of Titusville.
• Mottled Duck - seen at Paurotis Pond and elsewhere but easiest at Green Cay and Wakadohatchee Wetlands.
• Black-bellied Whistling Duck - easy at Wakodahatchee.
• Fulvous Whistling Duck - not seen and only reported from Cutler Wetlands during my stay.
• Snail Kite - I sought advice via. the Tropical Audobon Society Miami Birdboard (TAMS) for this species. I was told by a number of very helpful respondents that the best site in southern florida (but much easier further north !) is still the old Airboat Concession along the Tamiamia Trail from an hour or so before dusk. I visited 3 times and had birds on 2 occasions. This species was also observed mid-morning quartering the reedbeds to the south of the boat ramp at the western, ‘lake’ end of Joe Overstreet Road.
• Swallow-tailed Kite - perhaps birds had not returned in strength at this time but single birds were seen overhead on 3 occasions whilst driving along the main road through Everglades NP, and once along the Tamiami Trail. Fabulous !
• White-tailed Kite - had no luck with this species and would strongly recommend that local knowledge be sought.
• Short-tailed Hawk - not seen and not reported, local knowledge required.
• Crested Caracara - Seen along Joe Overstreet Road and at Viera Wetlands where local birders informed me it is regularly seen.
• Wild Turkey - Joe Overstreet Road.
• Purple Gallinule - seen at a number of sites but almost certain at Green Cay and Wakodahatchee Wetlands.
• Limpkin - not easy in Southern Florida and probably easier further north. Breeds at Green Cay. (I had a problem with this site since it had the feel of a zoo - and boardwalks infested with power walkers and joggers - and crowded with people - I did not like it at all - the birds are real though).
• Roseate Tern - no birds seen from the lower keys and perhaps too early.
• Black Skimmer - only recorded from the Merrit Island Area and then only as small flocks forced by high winds onto the shoreline at the landward end of the causeway between Titusville and Merrit Island.
• White-crowned Pigeon - a few birds seen along the lower key.
•Parrots and other exotics - not on my agenda I’m afraid save for an impromptu, brief and unsuccessful try for Monk Parakeet and Spot-breasted Oriole at Kendal Baptist Hospital.
• Mangrove Cuckoo - not seen. Had been reported from Ding Darling about a week before my visit, and during my visit from the Botanic Gardens on Key Largo. It would appear that this is now amongst the most reliable sites in spring for this most elusive of species.
• Groove-billed Ani - not seen. Birds are regularly (including a few days before and during my visit) being reported from the area around the ‘old 800 building’ on Old Griffin Road.
• Burrowing Owl - I did not try for this species.
• Antillean Nighthawk - not seen and not reported. Too early ?
• Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Relatively easy at Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area (Charlotte County) and the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area south of Joe Overstreet Road.
• Grey Kingbird - not seen probably because I’m useless.
• Cave Swallow - I made two visits to the well known sites under the ‘overpasses’ in Homestead on the assumption that breeding colonies would be visited by birds throughout the day. I was wrong - I cannot therefore confirm that the colonies are still in existence - perhaps as some reports suggest visits to the colonies are best at dawn and dusk. Perhaps somebody could clarify the situation for me. ?
• Florida Scrub Jay- found easily at Scrub Ridge Trail on Merrit Island.
• Brown-headed Nuthatch - not seen or heard at Babcock-Webb but had no problems in the Three Lakes area .
• Black-whiskered Vireo - not seen despite prolonged searches at the well publicised sites. Was being reported by other observers at various sites, and the Botanical Gardens on Key Largo appeared to be most productive. Being useless again a key factor.
• Painted Bunting - up to 5 birds regular visitors to the bird feeders located at the entrance to Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach.
• Bachman’s Sparrow - could not be missed at Three Lakes but failed to locate at Babcock Webb.
• Seaside Sparrow - I failed to find this species.
• Shiny Cowbird - a single male was found amongst a flock of Brown-headed Cowbird which frequented the lawn areas around the car-parks at Flamingo in Everglades NP which is reported as a regular site.
Fort Myers Beach: (2nd-4th April staying at the Holiday Inn) was chosen primarily as one of the best and most reliable sites (according to other trip reports) for Wilson’s Plover, Piping Plover, Marbled Godwit, and American Oystercatcher which might prove more difficult elsewhere. Secondly other potentially productive sites such as Sanibel Island (migrants at Lighthouse) and Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge (Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-whiskered Vireo), and Webb Babbcock Wildlife Conservation Area (Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachmann’s Sparrow) would all be less than 90 minutes drive away. (note, 3 hrs+ drive from the Atlantic Coast)
• Ding Darling on Sanibel Island (40 mins from Fort Myers Beach)- (closed Fridays) - was crowded with people on the Saturday visited - birding not as good as anticipated.
• The area around the Lighthouse on Sanibel Island - held few migrants.
• Babcock Webb Wildlife Management Area (about 75 mins drive North of Fort Myers Beach)- a great place and free of the crowds encountered elsewhere- visited mid-afternoon onwards but unfortunately blustery winds made hearing difficult and the birds less than obliging. Seeing 21 spp. was hard work but Sandhill Crane, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Wood Stork, and Eastern Bluebird made the effort worthwhile.
Homestead (4th- 11th April) chosen as a base to provide easy access to the Everglades, Tamiami Trail, and the Florida Keys.
• Everglades NP - visited all the sites accessible from the Main Entrance to Flamingo road. (40 mins from Homestead & 40 mins drive from the main Entrance to Flamingo excluding stops)
• Tamiami Trail - (1 ¼ Hrs drive from Homestead to old Airboat Concession)
• Florida Keys - ( 4 ½ Hrs drive from Homestead to Key West)- the Florida Keys(as viewed from the highway) in my opinion are ugly, over developed, and difficult to bird.
• Green Cay and Wakodahatchee Wetlands. A long return drive from Miami but just possible in a day . I visited en route to Titusville on a weekend when hordes of people were about.
Titusville (11th – 18th April) chosen as a gateway to Merrit Island and Central Florida and proved to be ideal.
• Merrit Island (15 mins drive) - Black Point Drive, Oak Hammock Trail etc , must be good otherwise people would not talk about it in such glowing terms - on this trip it was a bitter disappointed - the impoundments where I expected to find shallow mud fringed pools and flocks of waders, herons and wildfowl were desert like, acres of dry cracked mud with few if any birds.
• Lori Wilson Park, Cocoa Beach (45 mins drive)- best site for Warblers all trip, Painted Bunting a cert.
• Viera Wetlands (45 mins drive) - Least Bittern, Crested Caracara, evidently a favourite site with local birders
•Joe Overstreet Rd. (2hrs drive)- great !!
• Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (2hrs drive)- to be recommended !
Things you might find useful to know?
1. I found Google Earth & Maps to be invaluable tools for trip and route planning.
2. I rented Sat-Nav with the car hire - indispensible (!) especially for Urban driving- a notable proportion of the most well known birding sites are not to be found within the Satnav’s memory so be sure to make a note of their addresses before departure.
3. State highways (i.e the 401) are a real pain (traffic lights) over long distances so always use the Interstate Highways (i.e the 95).
4. There are major roadworks down to Key West causing slow moving traffic.
5. Trying to leave Fort Myers beach by car after 10.30am is an absolute nightmare due to traffic delays.
6. The (Tropical Audubon Society) TAS Miami Billboard is a great place to seek advice and local knowledge and to keep abreast of what’s about.
7. I had a bit of a problem taking my scope & tripod aboard as hand luggage on an internal US flight - all ok at Heathrow and on the return flight to the UK.
8. In my experience Banks in Florida will not cash Travellers Cheques unless you have an account with them (?) so unless you are going to use cheques to pay for your Accommodation, meals etc, I would take most of my spending money as cash. I had no trouble in Kansas (very odd !)
9. If you can, avoid places like Ding Darling, Green Cay, and even Anhinga Trail in the Everglades at the weekends- unless you like crowds of course.
1. Pied-billed Grebe - a few birds recorded at a number of sites.
2. Northern Gannet - 5 seen offshore from Cocoa Beach on the 13th.
3. Brown Pelican - seen in numbers at all coastal locations.
4. Double-crested Cormorant -
5. Anhinga -
6. Magnificent Frigatebird - 2 or 3 daily at Fort Myers Beach, 2 or three birds over Ding Darling on the 4th,and 15 over Key West on the 7th.
7. American Bittern - singles in flight at Anhinga Trail and near the Old Airboat concession along the Tamiami Trail.
8. Least Bittern - 2 at the Viera Wetlands.
9. Great Blue Heron -
10. Great Egret -
11. Snowy Egret -
12. Little Blue Heron -
13. Tricolored Heron -
14. Reddish Egret - only at coastal sites such as Fort Myers Beach, Flamingo, and Merrit Island, and never in numbers.
15. Cattle Egret -
16. Green Heron - highest density at Green Cay and Wakadohatchee Wetlands
17. Black-crowned Night Heron - in flight over the Tamiami Road near Shark Alley approaching dusk.
18. White Ibis -
19. Glossy Ibis - 4 birds beside the highway en-route between Fort Myers and Babcock Webb, near The lakes Recreation Area.
20. Roseate Spoonbill - only at Paurotis Pond, Shark Alley, and a few on Merrit Island.
21. Wood Stork - Large nesting colony on Paurotis Pond, but only encountered in one’s or two’s elsewhere. Widespread sightings of ‘V’ formations of these birds in flight.
22. Black-bellied Whistling Duck - only at Wakadohatchee Wetlands.
23. Mottled Duck -
24. Blue-winged Teal -
25. Northern Shoveler - 4 at Mrazec Pond on the 5th.
26. Red-breasted Merganser - 2 at Paroutis Pond.
27. Black Vulture -
28. Turkey Vulture -
29. Osprey -
30. Swallow-tailed Kite - single birds on 4 occasions over the main road in Everglades NP, and the Tamiami Trail.
31. Snail Kite - it would appear that the marshes to the north of the Old Airboat Concession along the Tamiami Trail remains the most reliable site in Southern Florida for this species. Best early morning or in the hour or so before dusk.
32. Bald Eagle -
33. Northern Harrier -
34. Red-shouldered Hawk -
35. Crested Caracara - 2-3 birds seen along Joe Overstreet Rd & at the Viera Wetlands.
36. American Kestrel - only recorded from agricultural areas around Homestead.
37. Merlin - single birds on 2 days at Merrit Island
38. Wild Turkey - Joe Overstreet Road
39. King Rail - An adult with 4 chicks beside the road along the Tamiami Trail
40. Sora - Single birds seen at Green Cay and Viera Wetlands.
41. Purple Gallinule -
42. Moorhen -
43. American Coot -
44. Limpkin - only recorded from Green Cay where breeding close to the boardwalk.
45. Sandhill Crane - easy along Joe Overstreet Rd, also seen at Babcock Webb
46. Black-bellied Plover -
47. Wilson’s Plover - several daily at Fort Myers Beach.
48. Semipalmated Plover -
49. Piping Plover - max of 3 seen daily at Fort Myers Beach
50. Killdeer -
51. American Oystercatcher - 2 at Fort Myers Beach
52. Black-necked Stilt -
53. American Avocet - 2 @ Mrazec Pond the only sighting.
54. Greater Yellowlegs -
55. Lesser Yellowlegs -
56. Willet -
57. Spotted Sandpiper -
58. Whimbrel - 1 at Fort Myers Beach.
59. Long-billed Curlew - 2 at Fort Myers Beach
60. Marbled Godwit - 5 at Fort Myers Beach
61. Turnstone -
62. Red Knot - only at Fort Myers Beach
63. Sanderling -
64. Semipalmated Sandpiper -
65. Western Sandpiper -
66. Least Sandpiper - by far the most numerous wader throughout.
67. Dunlin -
68. Stilt Sandpiper -
69. Short-billed Dowitcher -
70. Laughing Gull -
71. Ring-billed Gull -
72. Caspian Tern -
73. Royal Tern -
74. Forster’s Tern -
75. Least Tern -
76. Black Skimmer - only on Merrit Island.
77. Rock Dove -
78. White-crowned Pigeon - single birds in and around key West
79. White-winged Pigeon - very common in agricultural areas near Homestead.
80. Collared Dove -
81. Mourning Dove -
82. Common Ground Dove -
83. Mitred Parakeet - Kendall Baptist Hospital.
84. Barred Owl - Oak Hammock Trail in Everglades NP.
85. Ruby-throated Hummingbird - 1 at Lori Wilson Park on.
86. Belted Kingfisher -
87. Red-bellied Woodpecker -
88. Downy Woodpecker -
89. Red-cockaded Woodpecker -
90. Northern Flicker -
91. Great-crested Flycatcher -
92. Eastern Kingbird -
93. Purple Martin -
94. Barn Swallow -
95. Tree Swallow -
96. Northern Rough-winged Swallow -
97. Blue Jay -
98. Florida Scrub Jay - Difficult to miss at Scrub Ridge Trail on Merrit Island
99. American Crow -
100. Fish Crow -
101. Tufted Titmouse -
102. Brown-headed Nuthatch - had best luck with these little crackers at Three Lakes
103. Carolina Wren -
104. Eastern Bluebird - found in most dry woodland sites.
105. Grey Catbird -
106. Northern Mockingbird -
107. Brown Thrasher -
108. Cedar Waxwing -
109. Loggerhead Shrike -
110. European Starling -
111. Common Myna -
112. White-eyed Vireo -
113. Northern Parula -
114. Cape-may Warbler -
115. Black-throated Blue Warbler -
116. Pine Warbler -
117. Prarie Warbler -
118. Palm Warbler -
119. Black-and-white Warbler -
120. American Redstart -
121. Worm-eating Warbler -
122. Ovenbird -
123. Northern Waterthrush -
124. Common Yellowthroat -
125. Yellow Warbler -
126. Wilson’s Warbler -
127. Northern Cardinal -
128. Blue Grosbeak -
129. Indigo Bunting -
130. Painted Bunting - visiting feeders at entrance to Lori Wilson Park, Cocoa Beach
131. Eastern Towhee -
132. Bachman’s Sparrow - found easily at Three Lakes - seemed to prefer extensive grassy areas with sparsly scattered low bushes - sparrows were singing throughout the day from the tops of these bushes especially those with dead branches.
133. Savannah Sparrow -
134. Swamp Sparrow -
135. Red-winged Blackbird -
136. Eastern Meadowlark -
137. Boat-tailed Grackle -
138. Common Grackle -
139. Shiny Cowbird - one male found amongst a flock of Brown-headed at Flamingo
140. Brown-headed Cowbird -
141. House Sparrow -