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Itinerary - Southern Florida, April 2013

This section of the trip report contains details of the sites visited, along with a summary of the best birds seen. It does not contain photos of the birds and wildlife or full details of what was seen - for that go to the Systematic List section.


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The pins on the map above show some of the main areas we visited but for more detail see the maps for each day below. This section is split into three legs:

 

Leg 1: The West and the Everglades

 

Saturday 13th April

We flew out of Heathrow on a Virgin flight which was comfortable enough. It was scheduled to arrive in Miami at 4.00 pm local time which we figured would give us enough time to get through customs, pick up our car and head off to do some local birding. I'd considered twitching the Thick-billed Vireo and Bahama Mockingbird at Bill Baggs but had pretty much decided I would stick to the nearest site to the airport which seemed to be A D Barnes Park. After all it seemed daft twitching Florida rarities when I'd not yet seen lots of birds that are dirt-common in Florida.

In fact that decision was academic as we hadn't bargained for quite such a large queue at customs. I counted the number of people per row and the number of rows and reckon there were between 800 and 1000 people in the queue, and it wasn't moving very fast. It would have helped if the customs guys had communicated using words instead of hand signals. Even the hand signals might have been easier to understand if they hadn't been too lazy to actually lift their hands off the desk. I overhead someone tell one of the staff that Miami was the worst airport in the world - he may have been right, not that the staff member cared.

Three hours later we arrived at the car rental area to find most car rental companies had no queue at all. Unfortunately we'd booked with Alamo and they seemed to be competing with customs for the longest queue. To make matters worse they insisted only one person per car was in the queue which meant that we had to wait in the queue on our own while partners waited elsewhere. Great customer service I thought - instead of trying to make the queue shorter, make it look shorter, even if that makes the experience even worse for the customer. Over an hour later, long after dark, I found myself arguing with the manager about what was included. We won't be renting a car with Alamo again!

We stayed at the InterContinental Doral, which I would recommend - one of the better places we stayed on this trip. We ate at the hotel's own restaurant which was more than adequate. We would have stayed here again later in the trip but it was fully-booked for the nights we wanted it.

 

Sunday 14th April

We left early with a view to arriving at the Tamiami Trail S-333 (one of the access points to the Frances Taylor Wildlife Management Areas) at first light. The plan was to bird here briefly before moving down the road to the abandoned airboat concession from where Snail Kites could be seen at around dawn and dusk. Accidentally, but fortunately, we stopped first at a different access point, S-334, which proved to be much better than S-333.

First lesson learned was not to take optics out of an air-conditioned car without letting them acclimatise first, as I couldn't see through any of them! But the feeding frenzy that was occuring just in front of us hardly required optics - over 300 wading birds were in the small patch of water right in front of us including the likes of 70 Roseate Spoonbills as well as Wood Storks and many other species, several of which were new to me.

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wading birds and airboat, Tamiami Trail (S-334), 14th April

We continued on to S-333 which produced a few good birds, though not as much as the previous stop. By the time we left here it was much later than I'd planned to look for Snail Kites leaving the roost further on, but I didn't mind - I'd enjoyed seeing things like Common Nighthawk hawking in what was now broad daylight.

As we continued I described Limpkin to Vitty asking her to keep an eye out for one, to which she replied, "You mean like that?" There beside the road was a Limpkin!

We'd read that the abandoned airboat concession at Miccosukee was hard to miss, but early in the morning it wasn't immediately obvious whether airboat concessions were abandoned or just closed. Consequently we stopped at the wrong one, but it did provide views over the marsh and more importantly, it provided views of a Snail Kite. Our first Alligator was here too, and an impressive beast it was too - the biggest one we saw all trip I think!

Next stop was the Loop Road. Actually this was lots of stops as it's a long road that winds through some great habitat with great views of lots of things (like another Limpkin, Anhingas, various herons, 3 species of woodpecker). Not being familiar with the common bird calls and songs meant a lot of time was spent waiting for birds to appear only to find that they were common species like White-eyed Vireo (I was pretty chuffed the first time though, they're neat little birds). Various warblers were seen along here, the best being Prothonotory Warblers at 3 different spots - brilliant birds in every sense! Lots more Alligators along here, and a brief view of an Otter. By the time we reached Sweetwater Strand, perhaps the best spot along the road, more tourists had started to turn up. But even with the crowds there was no shortage of good birds.

We were making good enough time so decided to head down to Chokoloskee briefly. This diversion provided me with my first views of what was to become my favourite bird, Swallow-tailed Kite. Such graceful flyers, even at a distance they were fantastic, but later we were to get much better views of several more.

I knew early afternoon wouldn't be the best time to look for shorebirds on Marco Island but we made a quick trip down there to see what was what. The guy on the gate kindly advised us that most birders visit first thing in the morning and that the beach would be full of tourists, so we decided against it - the heat was pretty unbearable at this point! The diversion did provide my first Magnificent Frigatebird - although we would get many more and better views, this was one of my most wanted birds.

We spent the hottest part of the day travelling up to Punta Gorda where we hoped the Washington Loop Road would provide some good birds in the evening. It did, though not the Florida Scrub-Jay I'd been hoping for, nor Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. The road provided some good birding and a few new birds. A small pool in a field at the east end - a flood I think - provided some unexpected shorebirds (including 7 Solitary Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs species) and ducks (including my first Mottled Ducks and countable Muscovy Ducks - they're classed as naturalised over here).

We tried a Thai restaurant at the southern end of the loop road, Royal Thai Oriental. The food was interesting, if more than a bit odd for a Thai restaurant, and the service was friendly if less than efficient. We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel at Punta Gorda harbourside.

The map below shows the places we stopped at. Red pointers are main stopping places, yellow pointers are things we saw along the way. Click on a pointer to see the best birds we saw there.


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Monday 15th April

We started today at Babcock-Webb where the main priorities were Red-cockaded Woodpecker (which we saw), Bachmann's Sparrow (which I eventually heard but couldn't locate) and Brown-headed Nuthatch (which I couldn't find at all). I also hoped to see Northern Bobwhite, which I also failed to find. So in some ways it wasn't a roaring success, and missing the sparrows and Nuthatch today after missing the Scrub-Jay and Whistling-Ducks last night was quite disappointing. But it was good birding all the same, and definitely worth the visit - highlights were Red-headed Woodpecker (which proved to be the only one seen all trip), a pair of Sandhill Cranes with a chick, Eastern Bluebirds and Pine Warblers. Brown Thrashers and Eastern Towhees were also the only ones seen all trip. Despite the misses I'd had a very enjoyable morning!

After this it was hot and I didn't much feel like walking far, which ruled out another back-up site I had for Northern Bobwhite. We'd thought about visiting Corkscrew Swamp this afternoon but it seemed a long way away, so I decided instead to visit Alva. Apparently Painted Buntings could be found in winter on feeders here, and they might still be around - I wasn't sure if I'd find these easily later in the trip. There was also another site for Scrub-Jays nearby which I checked first, with no success. Alva produced White-winged Dove and great views of another fantastic Swallow-tailed Kite, but no Buntings.

After this it was still hot and there was lots of time before it would cool down when, I thought, I might return to either Babcock-Webb or Washington Loop Road. I decided after all to visit Corkscrew Swamp, which proved to be a good move. A great little place even in the heat of the afternoon. A thunder storm brought torrential rain as we arrived, but it was short-lived. The feeders outside the centre provided Painted Buntings, although an earlier Indigo Bunting had disappeared. A wander round the boardwalk provided brief views of my only Blue-headed Vireo as well as a variety of warblers and other species. A brief fly-through Hummingbird was frustrating - it would almost certainly have been my first Ruby-throated but I couldn't count it on that view.

By the time we had to leave here (when it closed, at 5.00 pm) trekking back up towards Punta Gorda didn't seem such an attractive option so instead we headed towards the Holiday Inn at Fort Myers Beach where we were to spend the next two nights. A quick stop at Dog Beach provided a variety of terns and other birds but in the distance and looking into the sun I could see a sandbank heaving with birds. I figured it might be more easily viewable from further north so ended up at Lovers Key State Park. There was no-one on the gate so we parked in the short-stay car park just outside the gate where Vitty would sit on a bench overlooking the channel while I headed off to the beach. I jested that she would probably see Manatees while I was gone (which we'd been led to believe were rare and hard to find). I then heard a big splash and joked that that was probably one. She sat down and immediately called me back as there were Manatees just in front of us! We both enjoyed watching these for a while, especially as 3 came right up to us and put on a fantastic performance for us!

I headed off to the beach, which was further than I imagined, to find the sandbar was hardly visible. Possibly if I'd had time to walk a mile or so back up the beach it would have been, but I'd just been told by an employee that I needed to be out in 3/4 hour (and the parking spot was supposed to be for a maximum of 1/2 hour, which had already passed). It may not have been as good as I'd hoped but there were a few birds there, like Black Skimmers passing and tame Willets on the beach, and I was still on a high after seeing the manatees.

We headed to the Holiday Inn, which wasn't very nice, and ate at the beach-side restaurant behind the motel. Can't say I enjoyed either the food, the service or the atmosphere a great deal, but it filled a hole. This was our first experience of food being served on a paper sheet between it and the plate, something which seemed to be quite common and makes no sense to me at all - it just makes the food slide around when you're trying to cut it and then you have to peel the paper off before you eat it when it gets soggy and torn, which it invariably does. I suppose it might make washing up easier, but it doesn't make the meal more enjoyable!


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Tuesday 16th April

We arrived at Ding Darling on Sanibel Island at dawn to give us the best chance of things like Mangrove Cuckoo. It didn't open until 7.00 am so we had to wait in the car park for a short while (not too long fortunately - just long enough to get the sun-cream and insect-repellant on and take a look at a Carolina Wren). Once in, several stops along the way provided great views of lots of shorebirds and herons. Highlights were American White Pelicans, Reddish Egrets, the only Yellow-crowned Night-Heron of the trip, more Roseate Spoonbills, lots of Willets and other shorebirds. The mangroves were very quiet though, and not a sniff of a Mangrove Cuckoo or indeed much else.

I'd planned to go on to Sanibel Lighthouse to search for migrants but got the impression that there were very few migrants around - even the local passerines seemed to be keeping their heads down in the baking heat. Instead we tried Bailey Tract, a small reserve that sometimes has some good birds. The walk round was hot - too hot - and we didn't see anything new.

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warning sign, Bailey Tract, 16th April - every English reserve should have one of these

The beach beside the causeway was busy with people but that didn't stop the birds - I was amused to watch a Great Blue Heron stand side by side with a fisherman.

Instead of birding the lighthouse I decided we'd head back to Corkscrew Swamp giving ouselves a bit more time than yesterday and then leaving early enough to make it back up to Babcock-Webb. Corkscrew Swamp wasn't quite as good as yesterday, but still good. Several of the same birds were seen, plus the trip's only House Wren. A Red-shouldered Hawk seemed to be showing very well, watched by several people (actually they were more interested in the alligators), but then it flew right up to us and landed between the people. All birds seem to be absurdly tame in America when compared to Europe but this really took it to extremes! I could barely focus on it!

I decided to take the slightly longer route to Babcock-Webb, via Immokalee, as I had seen photos of Florida Scrub-Jay taken around there, although I didn't have a specific site. The town was a reminder of the great extremes in affluence and poverty that can be found in Florida - it was like driving through a town in a third world country.

At Babcock-Webb the Sparrows remained elusive, as did pretty much everything else at first. Then as I was about to give up as the sun had pretty much gone down, I heard what I thought was a Brown-headed Nuthatch. I stopped the car and sure enough there it was - what a relief! I love Nuthatches, and this was one I really wanted to see! It would have been nicer if it hadn't been almost dark, but it was enough! Several Common Nighthawks were flying around as we continued round hoping to find one of the other nightjar species.

We arrived back at the Holiday Inn at Fort Myers Beach wishing we'd booked another night at the Four Points by Sheraton at Punta Gorda instead as that was much nicer, cheaper and more convenient for here. We ate at a restaurant just down the road - most places were closed by this time as restaurants seem to close early in America, so we didn't have a lot of choice. There was a very loud band playing inside so we sat outside. Once the waitress had realised she had a customer we had a nice enough meal, except for that paper on the plate thing again.


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Wednesday 17th April

The main point in staying at the Hoiliday Inn at Fort Myers Beach was that it was supposed to provide easy access to beach lagoons just behind the motel that were meant to be good for birds. In fact I don't think there would have been any difficulty accessing the beach through the Holiday Inn car park if you hadn't been staying there and anyway the lagoon half a mile further south was much better than the one behind the motel.

I first checked the lagoon behind the motel, which is divided by mangroves so it's really two lagoons. The beach-side one was indeed full of birds, the best being 3 Reddish Egrets. Several photographers were lapping it all up, but for me these weren't the birds I was looking for. The motel-side lagoon was quieter so I continued south down the beach, pausing to photograph an American Herring Gull that was so intent on devouring a dead fish that it didn't mind close approach. When I reached the next lagoon it became clear that this was the better place to be as hundreds of shorebirds littered its shores. Among the hordes were my first Wilson's Plover and better, a Piping Plover. That was the one I was really hoping for, though an American Oystercatcher would have been nice as well.

On the way out we stopped at Dog Beach again - quite different at a different time of day and different stage of tide! Nothing amazing, but 170 Royal Terns was by far the biggest count we had this trip and Gull-billed Tern was the only one we saw all trip.

The long days and heat were catching up on me and I decided I couldn't cope with a long walk up the beach to see more shorebirds at Marco Island, especially as I'd spent longer at Fort Myers Beach than I'd planned. So instead we decided to stop again at Chokoloskee in order to find lunch. Vitty took a look round the Smallwood Trading Post museum at the end of the road here while I watched Bottle-nosed Dolphins and a singing Prairie Warbler. Then we went to the City Seafood restaurant in Everglades City where I tried alligator and Vitty had the stone crabs that it's famous for. A nice place but I wouldn't recommend alligator - not much flavour and quite tough. Vitty enjoyed the stone crabs though.

As we headed back along the Tamiami Trail we stopped at the abandoned airboat concession where a Common Myna showed nicely. We also stopped at S-333 and S-334 again. S-333 supported an impressive flock of 110 Black Vultures (and a Limpkin), while S-334 was much quieter than before, no doubt due to the airboat traffic as it's one of the places they leave and depart from.

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airboat flushing birds, Frances Taylor Wildlife Management Area access point S-334

I was so tired that we decided not to bird til late tonight but instead head straight to the Travelodge at Florida City. On the way I found myself in a "right turn only" lane and realised too late to get out of it. I decided to check to see where we were in relation to the Cutler Ridge site for Caribbean Cave Swallows and discovered that we'd turned off at the bridge beneath which they breed! I drove round the corner, parked up and there they were.

We rolled up to the Travelodge to be greeted by 2 more Common Mynas. We ate at Rosita's Restaurant, a Mexican just round the corner. This had had good reviews and we were looking forward to some good Mexican food, so we were really disappointed to be served what was really very poor indeed. Still, it was fairly cheap, and it doesn't sound like there's much that's better in the area.


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Thursday 18th April

The Everglades was our destination for today and we left good and early. I'd read that Chuck-will's-widows could be seen at dawn around the Royal Palm Hammock and Eastern Whip-poor-wills nearby at night, so getting there before dawn seemed a good idea. We didn't see either nightjar but when it got light enough to see we wandered round the Anhinga Trail. Plenty of Anhingas and other nice goodies like White-crowned Pigeon, Belted Kingfishers and Eastern Kingbird.

Back at the Royal Palm Hammock I decided to have a quick look round the trees beside the car park - and found a Worm-eating Warbler. Another tree was fruiting and full of birds - along with 20 Gray Catbirds there were several species off warblers (including my first of several Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers). Vitty found me a nice Barred Owl above where I'd parked. With all this activity I thought it might be worth taking a look round the Gumbo Limbo trail, but it wasn't really - nearly all the activity was focused around the one fruiting ficus tree in the car park.

After all that excitement I was later than I'd planned getting off to the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow site and perhaps for that reason, or maybe because I was too distracted by the many biting insects, I couldn't find the sparrows. So back to Mahogany Hammock where I was greeted by more warblers including 2 Black-throated Green Warblers. Very nice!

On the way down to Flamingo I paused at Pouratis Pond, Nine Mile Pond, West Lake, Snake Bight Trail and Mrazek Pond. Pouratis Pond has a large colony of Wood Storks along with various other species like a few Roseate Spoonbills and a few interesting birds were at some of the other sites. I didn't spend long at Snake Bight Trail - just a few minutes at the head of the trail was enough to get me bitten to shreds. Flamingo was good, producing my first Gray Kingbirds, 2 Yellow Warblers and 2 Shiny Cowbirds in the car park, lots of birds off the visitor centre including 280 Black Skimmers and a few other bits and pieces around the area.

Working my way back I passed a nice Merlin before taking a look outside the park at the canals and Lucky Hammock (or Luck Hammock as it seems to be variably known as). A few warblers in the hammock were nice, though nothing new, and then I returned to the park to check out Long Pine Key. Here Eastern Bluebirds and Great Horned Owl were the best birds. At dusk I started searching for nightjars. I turned off the road to Royal Palm Hammock heading to Research road and in the headlights I quickly saw red eyes on the road ahead. These proved to belong to a Chuck-will's-widow. On Research Road I heard an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling and it sounded close. It was almost dark now but I could just make it out on a post just a few metres away. Back near where I'd seen the Chuck-will's-widow I could now hear one calling - interesting to compare the call to the Whip-poor-will. A great end to a great day.

We returned to the Travelodge in Florida City and went for the safer eating choice of the McDonalds next door. Mind you it was a bit disappointing - it didn't seem as good as McDonalds at home!


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