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Florida 2020: Part 2 (Birding)

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

My Christmas trip to Florida this year was too much to contain in just one blog post, so I split it into two. Part 1 covered a vacation with my wife to Savannah, the FL Panhandle, and the FL Gulf coast (where we spent Christmas with my family). This post covers the fourth leg of the trip, a 5-day solo birding adventure that took me across the northern half of the state. It also closes out my blog with some statistics of everything I saw on the trip.

Day 1:

I departed my uncle’s house in Dunedin a couple hours before dawn on Sunday to begin leg 4 of the trip, a solo sojourn dedicated to birding. My itinerary centered on two sometimes overlapping objectives: (1) finding target bird species, and (2) taking my time enjoying and photographing scenic and wildlife-rich biodiversity hotspots in central and north Florida.

My first stop, Backbone Road, was meant to satisfy the first objective, but ended up closer to the second. It was a quiet rural road south of Lakeland where I unsuccessfully searched for a pair of Whooping Cranes sighted recently. These endangered birds (or their parents?) were reintroduced in central FL a few decades ago as part of a now-abandoned effort to reestablish local breeding populations. Anyway, no luck on the Whoops, but I did see a lot of other good stuff, including Sandhill Cranes, Glossy Ibises, some ducks, and a bunch of classic farm birds like Cattle Egret, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Eastern Meadowlark, and tons of Killdeer.

After this pleasant detour, I headed to Lake Apopka, where I’d spend the next two full days. Fun fact: although the Lake Apopka area is now one of the best birding locations in Florida, only decades ago it was the most polluted lake in the state, with so much agricultural runoff that the birds (and other wildlife) that lived there straight up died. Now the lake, along with the culpable farmland on the north shore, are owned and managed by the St. John’s River Water Management District, and seem to be doing well.

Anyway, with my first bird chase nominally unsuccessful (what’s new?), I figured my next stop should be another wild bird chase. Get it out of my system, right? I headed to Newton Park, a modest city park on the south shore of Apopka, to search in vain for a previously reported Bronzed Cowbird. But again, all was not lost! This may just be the best place on the planet to see Purple Gallinules—one of my all-time favorite birds—at extremely close range; one came less than 6 feet away from me! The park’s location on the southern shore of the lake also provided excellent lighting for photography at basically any time of day.

After Newton Park, I made my way to various birding sites around the lake in a counterclockwise loop. Next was a quick stop on a seemingly random county road, where I was able to see some rare flycatchers: a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (extremely cool) and a handful of Western Kingbirds (pretty cool, and my first time seeing them on the east coast). The icing on the cake was my discovery of a Vesper Sparrow and, even better, a Grasshopper Sparrow. Although other birders had previously discovered the flycatchers, I alone found these semi-rare sparrows. Finding your own good birds is always more fun than relocating someone else’s good birds. I also saw a Great Southern White here, a lifer butterfly that I saw on a couple subsequent occasions, too.

With the chasing (sort of) out of my system, I started focusing more on objective #2. My next stop was a 10-mile tour of the Lake Apopka North Shore from the comfort of my car, along the so-called “wildlife drive.” As a pretty serious birder and an even more serious lover of solitude, I have mixed feelings about “wildlife drives.” On one hand, they generally pass through very productive areas for viewing wildlife, they’re quite convenient, and, for these reasons, they are an excellent way for your average human to get a taste of how amazing the natural world can be. On the other hand, you miss a lot of animals when birding from a car, and wildlife drives can be (and Apopka was) extremely crowded; my pace was basically set by however many middle-of-the-road stops the car in front of me, or the car in front of him, felt like making. Not my ideal way to experience nature. That said, I can’t complain. The wildlife drive was great. Bird highlights included: dozens of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks; nearly 400 (!) Fulvous Whistling-Ducks (a lifer, and one of the last North American ducks I needed); thousands of Common Gallinules (living up to their name) and even more American Coots; a pair of the Gray-headed Swamphens; some shorebirds (incl. 10 Black-necked Stilts and 2 American Avocets); lots of herons (incl. Black-crowned Night Herons), egrets, ibises, and Anhingas; some Northern Harriers and, last but not least, a Merlin. Non-avian highlights included dozens of American Alligators, a River Otter, and a Phaon Crescent (apparently a fairly common butterfly in FL, seen later too).

After hours behind the wheel, I decided to stretch my legs biking around the Clay Island Loop Trail on the northwestern part of the lake. I took a short hike on the front end of the ride, where I saw a Barn Owl (lifer, finally!) roosting inside a man-made nest box, an Armadillo, and an entrancing group of at least 22 Zebra Longwings congregating on some Spanish moss. Super cool! But what came next was even cooler. Shortly after remounting my bike, I saw a small dog-sized animal emerge on the path about 50 yards ahead of me. I slammed on my brakes, grabbed my bins, and fumbled for my camera. A Bobcat—yeah, a Bobcat!—stared me down from the middle of the trail for a few moments before sauntering off into the adjacent woods. This was a much-awaited lifer for me, and one of my favorite wildlife moments of the whole trip. The rest of the Clay Island bike ride wasn’t too shabby, either. I cruised over dikes separating various impoundments, some of which hosted ducks and waders; American Wigeon, Wood Stork, and Sandhill Cranes were probably the best birds. I also saw a couple dozen more Alligators, a pair of Florida Red-bellied Cooters (lifers), a Roseate Skimmer, and some Common Green Darners.

With a long day of birding under my belt, I retired back to the eastern shore of Apopka to the county-run Magnolia Park campground. I enjoyed the company of Indian Peafowl (which apparently now count as wild birds in Florida, according to the bird police) and a nice lakeshore sunset. I retired to my tent, where a Great Horned Owl sung me to sleep (not for the last time).

Day 2:

Monday morning began with a pre-dawn bike ride from my campsite to a lakeshore trail that ultimately met up with the wildlife drive (closed to motor vehicles on most weekdays, thankfully). On the front end, I met up with a locally famous wildlife photographer who has captured some incredible Bobcat images. We cruised around and spotted two incredibly distant bobcats (an adult and a kitten) crossing a road, but didn’t spend too much time looking for them. My camera battery turned out to be on its last leg, so I was more judicious with photos than usual, but I still got some interesting shots. I encountered the same birds as the previous day (including the Swamphens and both types of Whistling-Ducks), plus a few new ones, like a heard-only Sora and some Orange-crowned Warblers. I also ran into a trio of curious Raccoons; one had the gall to walk right up to my bike and inspect the panniers (probably smelling my trail mix).

After the 15-mile bike ride, I headed back to camp for a “shower” in a water spigot, then made a short trek around the park pond to look for invertebrates. I saw a few, the coolest being a handful of Roseate Skimmers, along with some other odes and leps seen earlier in the trip.

Then it was back to Newton Park for one last try for the rare cowbird. No luck (no surprise), but I did have even better luck with the other wildlife, including more photo ops with the Purple Gallinules AND a flyby Snail Kite! What’s more, the perfectly warm, sunny weather coaxed out a Pin-tailed Pondhawk (lifer), some other odes and leps, and a couple Florida Red-bellied Cooters.

I spent the last half of the day biking 8 or 9 miles around the Apopka north shore from the McDonald Canal trailhead, rounding out my tour of the lake. I saw more of the same good birds seen previously (though far fewer ducks), but the obvious highlight was a pair of perched Snail Kites that offered me amazing looks. My ride was also interrupted by two separate River Otter encounters and a half dozen Virginia Opossums along the roadsides. After enjoying a solo sunset surrounded by nothing but miles of wilderness, I returned to my car to a chorus of Spring Peepers, and departed for the next leg of the trip.

Note: at one point on the Apopka leg of the trip, I was able to share some intimate moments with a very cooperative pair of Painted Buntings. The species is on the decline, and apparently subject to significant poaching efforts in Florida, so the bird police recommend not disclosing precise locations of the birds that overwinter in Florida (they’re even automatically hidden from eBird outputs!). I will say they aren’t faring that poorly, as I saw them on three occasions this trip.

Monday night involved a couple hours of night driving to my next campsite in Christmas, FL, conveniently situated between Orlando and the Atlantic Ocean. This was my first time using HipCamp, a sort of Airbnb for camping, and it worked out really well. I ended up glamping in a pop-up camper in a very crunchy neck of the woods, with access to very practical (and surprisingly private) amenities like a hose shower and deluxe poop bucket.

Day 3:

Although a Great Horned Owl interrupted my sleep, I was plenty well-rested as I departed before dawn on Tuesday for my first destination: the Rich Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Viera, FL. This place was awesome! I covered a little over 3 miles of constructed wetland dikes on foot and saw some great waterbirds, including: a couple Soras (one seen), a Purple Gallinule, a Limpkin (my first of the trip), more Anhingas than I’ve ever seen before (at least 62!), and 11 species of waders, including American Bittern (3 seen), Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. The landbirds were decent too, including: a group of Sandhill Cranes, a few Loggerhead Shrikes (including one taking a leaf dew bath), and a Crested Caracara (target bird, and a lifer!) that flew by in the distance. Add some Alligators, FL Red-bellied Cooters, a Peninsular Cooter, and some butterflies (including Ceraunus Blue, a lifer), and I’d call that a morning well spent.

I spent the late morning and early afternoon at Merritt Island NWR, another of Florida’s most famous birding destinations. Interesting story: when the feds purchased the land for Cape Canaveral, they created a bunch of impoundments to flood out the mosquitos. On one hand, this created tons of great habitat for ducks and wading birds; on the other, it led to the extinction of an entire subspecies (the Dusky Seaside Sparrow). Anyway, nothing to do now but admire what we created. The main destination was Black Point Wildlife Drive, which was a similar experience to Apopka’s wildlife drive. Way, way, way too many people in cars, but also a ton of cool birds. I only saw 9 species of ducks (St. Marks was far better for waterfowl), but among them I spotted some Mottled Ducks plus a continuing hybrid Blue-winged x Cinnamon Teal, a first for me. I guess I could call it a lifer, but it’s not really a new species, just a new combination…. Of the 8 species of shorebirds, a large group of American Avocets was the most spectacular. And of the 10 species of wading birds, I’ll split the honors between 8(!) Reddish Egrets, a similar number of Wood Storks, and close to 40 Roseate Spoonbills and Glossy Ibises.

After the wildlife drive, I went on a hunt for another target species: the Florida Scrub-Jay, found nowhere in the world outside of this state. They are relatively abundant at Merritt/Canaveral, and I didn’t have to search very hard. As I pulled into the trailhead of a likely location (the well-named Scrub Jay Trail), I heard one calling through my open windows, and was able to get great looks at a pair without having to even hike the trail! You don’t get victories like that in birding very often.

With some time to kill, I made a short trip to a wooded dirt where other birders had reported some interesting western warblers, which of course I couldn’t find. I did, however, see a handful of other interesting birds (like flyover Wood Stork and American White Pelican) and invertebrates (like Little Blue Dragonlet and Long-tailed Skipper).

I called it a day earlier than prior days, and headed back to campsite for a cold shower (where a Green Treefrog awaited) and a relaxing evening by a fire. Since my cooking kit doesn’t have built-in measuring lines, I resorted to using a beer can to measure water for my rehydrated dinner; it worked okay. And I heard a Great Horned Owl for the third night in a row (a Barred Owl later joined the party and woke me up just after midnight).

Day 4:

Wednesday morning brought my final full day of birding. I spent the first four hours at the Orlando Wetlands Park, located just a few miles away from my campsite. Although it sounds a bit like a water slide-filled theme park, it thankfully wasn’t. Just another man-made wetland meant to serve as water treatment, a common feature in Florida. The Orlando wetlands were like those in Viera, but way bigger (at 1650 acres) and arguably slightly better, with a few more birds. I hiked 2 miles and biked another 6, covering a nice variety of habitats with differing water levels and aquatic vegetation. I observed 68 different species of birds here (more than any other site on the trip). I won’t list them all, but even some of the repeats are exciting enough to mention again. First: new birds for the trip included King Rails (heard) and a Peregrine Falcon. Oldies but goodies included BB Whistling-Ducks, Mottled Ducks, Soras (all over the place), Purple Gallinules (in even greater numbers, and just as close as Newton Park), Limpkins, Sandhill Cranes, Wood Storks, Glossy Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills (nearly 50), and a huge dawn movement of 170+ Cattle Egrets. I also watched a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks copulating which was interesting. In the woods adjacent to the wetlands, I ran (well, biked) across a mixed flock containing 7 different species of warblers, and later some Common Ground Doves. The birds were complemented by a host of other animals, including a River Otter, a deer, some gators, many heard-only Southern Leopard Frogs, and a nice assortment of leps and odes.

I left the freshwater wetlands and headed back towards the Atlantic coast for a mid-day hike at Smyrna Dunes park, south of Daytona Beach. It’s an impressive park, with over a mile of boardwalk crossing some relatively pristine dunes to a large inlet and beach. For reasons unclear to me, an eerie haze blanketed the beach, significantly reducing visibility. I spent a lot of time unsuccessfully looking for Purple Sandpipers on the rock jetties, but all was not a loss. I managed to see 2 Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead, and a jaeger (probably a Parasitic Jaeger) harassing a gull. I also saw more Brown Anoles and a handful of butterflies, including a lifer Ornate Bella Moth. Overall, a little underwhelming, but worth the stop.

Next, I scooted another 2 hours up I-95 to my final stop and resting place at Huguenot Memorial City Park, not far from Jacksonville. The park protects a mid-sized island situated at where the St. John’s river meets the Atlantic Ocean. Essentially all of my adventures from Apopka onward took place within the St. John’s River basin, so this was a fitting end to the trip. Before retiring for the night, I took advantage of the low tide, hiking around marshy sandflats and the beachfront (which, like Smyrna, was extremely hazy). I saw dozens of Red-breasted Mergansers (duck species #20 for the trip), a flock of Black Skimmers, and hundreds of shorebirds; the best was undoubtedly a Whimbrel I flushed from the marsh grass. I set up my tent about 20 feet from the water and fell asleep to the distant thrum of barges and the naval base across the river. And, of course, I heard a Great Horned Owl for the fourth night in a row.

Day 5:

I greeted the sunrise Thursday morning with a short walk to the beach, where the haze persisted and a few birds held court. As I waited for the sun to dry my tent, I took a short excursion a few miles north to Big Talbot Island State Park to a fantastic roadside tidal pond that was brimming with birds. I saw hundreds of shorebirds (across 11 species, including some Avocets) and dozens of waders (8 species, including a Reddish Egret, a Roseate Spoonbill, and some Wood Storks). And just as I finished tallying all the shorebirds, a Peregrine Falcon swooped in, scattering the birds to sights unseen. This was a sign that it was time for me to hit the road, and a great note to end on.

As I began my drive back home, I couldn’t help but revel in the beauty of this corner of Florida. It felt a lot like the sparsely populated coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina. And then I hit 1-95, which, as noted above, is extremely scenic for the first couple hours north of Jacksonville. Mirroring the highway drive into Florida, I saw 2 more Wild Turkeys off I-95 as I neared Fayetteville. And after a long 7-hour drive through some nasty weather, It was good to return to the piedmont mixed hardwood forest I call home (and, of course, to my wife and cat!). The cold, rainy NC winter weather made me appreciate the Florida climate, but it also afforded me more inside time to sift through all my photos, catalogue all of my sightings, and work on this blog.

Trip recap by the numbers:

The trip lasted 13 days and 12 nights, considerably longer than any other vacation in recent memory. I drove 2350 miles, spending at least 40 hours behind the wheel, and burning 86 gallons of gas. I took roughly 2750 photos, mostly of wildlife (with my fairly new lens), but a couple hundred landscape shots (with my brand new lens), and this resulted in many hours spent reviewing and deleting photos. Sort of fun, sort of not fun.

How about some unquestionably fun statistics? I observed 208 different species of animals. Unsurprisingly, birds were the dominant taxa, with a respectable 164 species, including 6 lifers (American Flamingo, Nanday Parakeet, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Barn Owl, Crested Caracara, & Florida Scrub-Jay), bringing my ‘Merica life list up to 434. To dive even deeper, this included 23 species I hadn’t seen elsewhere in 2020, bringing my year list up to 287 species (considerably lower than prior years; thanks ‘rona). And not that anyone cares, but 38 of the 162 species seen in Florida were new to my Florida list, bringing my total in that state up to a modest 189. The most abundant bird of the trip was the American Coot; I saw at least 10,262 across 11 different occasions.

Moving on from birds, I saw:

  • 12 species of mammals, including 1 lifer (Bobcat);

  • 11 species of herps (reptiles and amphibians), including 2 lifers (Suwannee River Cooter & Florida Red-bellied Cooter);

  • 12 species of odes (dragonflies and damselflies), including 4 lifers (Purple Bluet, Florida Bluet (I think), Twilight Darner, & Pin-tailed Pondhawk); and

  • 19 species of leps (butterflies and moths), including 5 lifers (Orange-barred Sulphur, Dorantes Longtail, Great Southern White, Ceraunus Blue, & Ornate Bella Moth).

The most abundant non-bird of the trip was the American Alligator; I saw at least 119 of them on 9 different occasions. Common Green Darners and Monarchs were the most abundant invertebrates, seen on 5 and 6 occasions, respectively. I also saw a lot of squirrels, but who cares.

That’s all, folks! If you missed Part 1 of this blog, it’s not to late to see how it all began.


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