Chris and I drove out early on February 22 to see friends and photograph in Florida. It was to be a short, but concentrated trip and that proved to be so. We met up with four sets of friends, including three fraternity brothers and their wives from fifty some years ago.
After enduring awful traffic around Orlando, we settled into a motel in St. Petersburg. Our first natural history location was Fort DeSoto, a large park (1136 acres) on a barrier island at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The park seems most visited by beach goers and fisherpeople, but is popular with birders.
Although visited by a reported 2.7 million people annually, we learned upon entrance (and paying a $6 fee0 that the Visitors Center is closed on weekends!! Of all the dumb decisions: close the center on the days of the week when most people visit.
We first went to East Beach where we located a number of waders: Sanderlings, Dowitchers, Willets, Least Sandpipers and several species of plovers. Fog did not make for good photography. One habituated Snowy Egret landed on our car looking for a handout.
After an hour or so here, we drove to the end of the island at North Beach, but did not find much of interest. On our way back we noticed a number of photographes with big lens’s set up off to our right. We immediately parked the car, walked over, and found that they were viewing and photographing two young Great Horned Owls in the crotch of a tree. One parent bird was nearby. The sun was getting high, so the light was not very good, but I made a few decent photos.
Our next wildlife destinationwas Myakka River State Park, a huge park of 28,875 acres. I had been here once before, perhaps twelve years before, but did not remember much of the location. After paying another fee, we drove in and soon spotted a wild hog family. My first ever European Wild Hogs, or so they seemed. There were three youngsters, but fog again prevented decent photographs.
We continued on to Upper Lake Myakka, but there was practically nothing in the way of birds on the lake. Another visitor told us the park authorities had cleaned out all the floating vegetation and with it went the birds. On the way back we did spot one of the local, non-migratory Sandhill Cranes, strangely by himself. Usually at this time of year birds are paired off and with their chicks.
By Monday, we had reached our primary destination for a small fraternity reunion: Venice. Our hosts had advised that there was a heron/egret/ibis rookery located in this town, a rookery that was located on a small island in a small lake and attracted many photographers from ‘around the world.” So off we went and indeed it was an impressive place. Many photographers and many just observors sitting in lawn chairs watching the show as dozens of birds came in near sunset to roost. I was here five times, both shortly after dawn and at sunset. The latter was the better show.
I mostly used my new 200-400 Nikon lens and found it to be as good as hoped and reported. However, it was still difficult to get clean shots of flying birds. Birds at the nest were easier!
The best image made here was on the last night when I caught some White Ibis silouteted against the orange sky. I think this is the best image I have made in 2013.
The next morning we were off early, heading south and east, first stopping at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. At one time this was the home of thousands of Wood Storks and other wading birds, but the recent draught has left it void of these big birds. I think there were more visitors here than good birds. We did see Painted Buntings at feeders, a few alligators, some attractive cypress trees and a nice Little Blue Heron in full breeding plumage;
From Corkscrew we “flew” across Alligator Alley (I75) and thence up I95 to the Boynton Beach area to visit our favorite places in Florida: Wakodahatchee Wetlands and Green Cay Welands, both small water reclamation projects. The former is only 56 acres. Both have boardwalks. Green Cay has over two miles of elevated boardwalks. Birds and animals here are habituated to people. Early every morning, hoardes of walkers arrive from nearby retirement/winter condos to get their daily exercise. They thump, thump, thump along the boardwalk, most babbling and oblivious to folks interested in making good photos. It is hardly a totally peaceful scene.
On the other hand, views are peaceful and the wildlife so easy to photograph. At Green Cay we saw and photographed both the American and the Least Bitterns and Purple Galinules like this one with a highly sought after water plant fruit. Purple Galinule numbers seem to have been depressed in the Everglades and elsewhere for reasons unknown, so it is really nice to see a pair close in. Their colors in the sunlight are simply spectacular!
There was also a Limpkin screaming incessantly at Green Cay. This bird is usually nocturnal, but at these wetlands, rules are often broken. We don’t know whether he was seeking a mate, or telling everyone else within a mile that he had one and no one else should even think of coming around!
We had seen seen a bobcat at Green Cay twice last year, but this year were not so lucky. We had also seen Marsh Rabbits at this wetlands early in the morning, but none this year. Are they still around? No one to ask at the hours we were present.
When we had walked around the boardwalk at Green Cay sufficiently, we headed over to Wakotahatchee, that is only a mile or so to the East. We didn’t expect too much different here and have photographed here a number of times in the past. I was surprised to find three Cattle Egrets on a little island off one leg of the boardwalk, egrets in full breeding plumage. There are thousands of this species all over south Florida, but individuals in full breeding plumage are unusual, if not rare.
I raced to the car and retrieved Big Bertha, my 600mm lens. Unfortunately, during my absence, one of the bonded pair had flown off. I was able to photograph the other two individually, however. After perhaps five minutes one flew, and then after another five, the final bird flew off. Too bad. I was hoping to capture some of the fascinating interactions in a bonded pair but was not that lucky!
Before noon we were headed 160 miles north to the Titusville area to visit our final wildlife spot: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This property lies adjacent to the world famous Cape Canaveral Space Center. I had visited here briefly perhaps twenty years before and about the only thing I remembered was seeing my first live armadillo here right along the side of the road.
After checking into our motel, we drove across a bridge over the Intercoastal Waterwy and then onto a gravel road that meandered through low lying wetlands. There are diked fresh water shallow ponds and also salt water inlets. It is a most confusing area, as the roads are very narrow and mostly unmarked. They do not match the diagrams in literature of the refuge. Frankly, we got lost! Finally found our way out to a paved, unmarked road and headed to the Visitors Center that was closing in twenty minutes.
We had a productive talk with the ranger there, learned where a rare duck (Cinamon Teal) was located, where we were likely to see the Roseate Spoonbills and where the rare Florida Scrub Jays could be seen. So off we went onto the Peacock Pocket Road, which, it turned out, is connected to the other gravel roads in the same wetlands.
We never did find the teal, and mostly what we saw were hordes of American Coot, Lesser Scaup and Blue-winged Teal. There were also a handful of Shoverlers and a few Mottled Ducks. Most of the northern breeders like Pintails and Green-winged Teal had already made their exit heading north.
As the sun was getting low and the time late, we finally located three adult Spoonbills not far off the road, mixed in with dozens of Coots. The sun occasionally peeked through the low clouds, giving exceptional light on the birds. One Spoonbill provided a number of photo ops, preening and also feeding.
After making a number of photos of this bird, he got out of position and we decided to move on and out of the refuge.
We were surprised, however, that the show was not over. Chris spotted a bird right alongside the road on the left side very near the end of the road. She thought it was a juvenile Spoonbill, a bird that is pink, but not bright scarlet. We backed up and sure enough it was.
While I was working this bird, four more came flying in, all more juveniles. Then four more, then three more after that. Making a total of twelve birds all within about thirty feet of the car. It was a magical few minutes as they fed amongst the coots right by us. A nice way to end the day!
The following morning, our last observing wildlife, we first traveled the main wildlife loop, known as Black Rock Wildlife Drive. The ranger the previous day had told us that this was unproductive right now and he was right on. We saw almost nothing except a group of Spoonbills well away from the road and unphotographable.
So we again entered the Peacock Pocket Road for a final look. Once again, near the end we hit paydirt. I spotted a large white bird which didn’t look right. I couldn’t immediately see what was wrong, but after we backed up and I put my binocs on him, I saw that it was just a Great Egret with a large fish in its beak. It was trying to swallow but having difficulty. I made probably a dozen images of this episode. The bird dropped the fish and picked it back up. This image was one of the last before he gulped it down. One could see the huge bulge in its neck as the fish went down and even see movement!
It was almost time to finish the photographic part of our trip, but we decided to spend a few minutes looking for the Florida Scrub Jay. The ranger had told us that a small group usually were right around the pay station up the road and another group at the first parking lot a short distance further.
We showed our Blue Hair Pass at the gate and passed through and within twenty seconds I had noticed a jay sitting at the top of a tree. It was unphotographable, so we proceded to the little parking lot. It was almost as if the jays knew we were coming and decided to give us a show. Two were right there. They both flew to the ground, giving us terrific looks. One had four bands on its legs, reflecting the significant research that is done on these rare birds. The other had none. We were thrilled with the views, but after ten minutes, both birds flew and so did we! Back through the gate, down State Routes 402 and 406 and out onto I96 for our 900 mile trek home
At this point we had seen 98 species and I assured Chris we would get the final two for a solid 100 birds on the trip. It was not to be. We spotted a Houe Sparrow in Florence, SC at our motel, but simply could not scratch up the final bird. We had not seen a Mallard, a Flicker, a Junco, or even a Chickadee, before pulling into our driveway at 2PM on Sunday afternoon. It was quite a trip!