I left my perch in bleak, wintery Colorado for a three week stay in Florida with fellow young birder Andy Bankert. Starting in Andy’s hometown Melbourne, we would bird our way through Winter Park (named after the ski town in Colorado), Gainesville, and Tallahassee, looping in and out of Blountstown in the panhandle for a Christmas Bird Count. We would end in Melbourne, making day trips to Kissimmee (Snail Kite) and Everglades National Park. The following is but a glimpse of the many adventures Andy and I shared on our Florida winter birding trip.
December 23-26-Zellwood/Lake Apopka
Using Winter Park as our nighttime base, we birded Zellwood intensely in preparation for a Christmas Bird Count December 26. The Lake Apopka Restoration Area is an expanse of wetlands and agricultural fields, a well-known place to bird historically as well as currently. Host to many a Florida rarity, both Yellow-headed Blackbird and Swainson’s Hawk were seen in the area near the time of my stay. Perhaps the most exciting for me concerned a much awaited lifebird, the Florida Scrub-Jay. If one hasn’t guessed by now, I have a thing for scrub-jays, as they are the birds that helped push my love for nature into the realm of birding. December 24th, Andy and I drove out to a scrubby area, where I had my first glimpse of the Florida Scrub-Jay perched like a sentinel atop a tall snag. We had forgotten to bring nuts, so instead I held forth a small piece of Lays potato chip in my hand to try and coax the bird closer. Another bird perched in the scrub below the snag immediately flew to a post and eyed me suspiciously. The jay showed little interest in the chip, but after finally taking the strange food cached it in a dirt mound nearby.
December 31-Tallahhasee and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
We began the morning at Lake Henrietta in Tallahassee. The lake, a mucky slough brimming with trash, hosted a small flock of Lesser Scaup sprinkled with Canvasback. A small ditch split off from the lake, and foraging for snails in the green quagmire were three lanky Limpkin. I set up the scope and began sketching the heron-like creatures, which are actually related to rails and cranes. Limpkin, so named for their “limping” walk, feed almost exclusively on apple snails, not unlike the diet of the Snail Kite*. From there we went to St. Marks, a wildlife refuge composed of a range of habitats from saltmarsh to pine flatwoods. I found the coniferous forest somewhat familiar to my home state Colorado, and while walking down a path a wave of nostalgia hit me. I thought I was hearing the short pick of Pygmy Nuthatches. It wasn’t long before the short picks gave way to a kingbird like chatter and a small flock of Brown-headed Nuthatches made their appearance. Some would liken their incessant chatter to a squeaky toy. Florida’s pinelands consist mainly of Longleaf Pine, the floor dabbled with sprays of lime-green saw palmetto. Here one may hear Pileated Woodpeckers laughing in the distance, spy a bright yellow Pine Warbler flitting in the tree boughs, or perhaps spot a Palm Warbler obsessively pumping its tail.
*The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior Edited by Cris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley
St. Marks Wildlife Refuge
January 4-Jackson County Christmas Bird Count (CBC)
Jackson County is one of Florida’s less birded areas. Consequently, the CBC turns out a number of goodies. Most stunning were the sheer numbers of birds. All day, flocks of 100 to 1,000 Red-winged Blackbirds passed overhead. After playing a recording of Eastern Screech-Owl, we watched a tree draped in Spanish moss come alive with birds. Pine and Palm Warblers hyperactively flitted from branch to branch, a Hairy Woodpecker let out a sharp tuck!, and a few Blue-headed Vireos silently moved among the small collection of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Many of the birds I find common in Colorado are infrequent treasures in Florida. For example, our two Hairy Woodpeckers were an uncommon find, although they become more common in Florida’s panhandle. CBC participants anxiously looked for such high elevation birds as Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Perhaps not surprisingly, Andy and I located a rare find in our own territory. While counting the mass of American Pipits in a dirt field, a lisping song just barely broke the air. “Hey! Isn’t that Horned Lark? You should know Horned Lark, you live in Colorado!” Andy said emphatically. Sure enough, a Horned Lark was sitting atop a mound in the dirt field, his yellow breast clearly visible. After visiting a few other fields, we ended the day with 14 Horned Larks. Remember, Horned Larks are “rare” in Florida, and 14 in a day is perhaps the most seen at one time. The Horned Larks were seen near the same field on the same CBC last year. We wrapped up our territory with a total of 79 species and 7,557 individual birds.
January 8- Everglades National Park
Even in winter, when the river of grass is dry and brittle, Everglades National Park holds vibrant beauty. In its moss-covered forests bromeliads ornament the trees and lush green ferns carpet the forest floor. Andy and I first walked the Gumbo Limbo Trail in search for Black-throated Blue Warbler. The forest consisted mainly of gumbo limbo trees, rusty red in color. Because the bark often looks like the peeling skin of a sun worshipper, the gumbo limbo tree is also called tourist tree. Our search was unsuccessful, but we did find a small flock of warblers. Warblers in the winter are truly a strange site. Such colorful birds seem to belong in the Neotropics. But south Florida is lucky to have them wintering in small numbers. I lifted my binoculars at one point, and was shocked by the electric yellow of a Yellow-throated Vireo among the Black-and-white, Black-throated Green, and Magnolia Warblers. Later we walked the Anhinga Trail, where gators slowly slunk through the water, their ridged tails swaying ever so slightly as they moved with smooth agility. Green Herons speared for fish just feet in front of us, and Anhingas already in breeding plumage sat with their slick wings spread wide. On the way home, we stopped at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Palm Beach County. The bird we would run across here would represent the climax of our entire trip for me, a much dreamed of life bird. How often had I wondered when my turn would come to see this purple, blue, and green creature with long, skeletal toes. When I finally saw it, my eyeballs just about fell out of my head. Picking its way among the lily-pad-like spatterdock, a Purple Gallinule silently moved. I began making short clicking noises with my tongue and the bird methodically climbed up a skinny green stalk, clutching the plant with its glistening yellow toes, until it had reached a sunlit spot. The birds feathers glowed iridescent in the sunshine and all I could say was “Wow, that is a good-looking bird”.