A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 21 July 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 3 (Mead Botanical Garden & Viera Wetlands)

Day 3 -  Wednesday 30th March 2016

Leaving Orlando for the time being and not returning until the very last day of our trip, we were up and out bright and early again ready for our first port of call for the day – Mead Botanical Garden
Mead Botanical Garden - Florida
Mead Botanical Garden
This fantastic small wildlife oasis nestled just to the north of Orlando held a number of key species for us that we were unlikely to see elsewhere, and we had barely left the car when Alex heard the first – Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Pine Warbler
Calling from one of the huge moss draped trees in the picnic area, we craned our necks in an effort to catch a glimpse of a flash of yellow in the leaves above. Pinning down the location the calls were emanating from, it wasn’t long before I’d found our prize – one superb male Pine Warbler making its way along a thick branch and feeding on the insects in the crevices. 
Pine Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Pine Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
This was another species we weren’t sure whether we would connect with, wintering in Florida and being one of the first species to migrate north.
Pine Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Pine Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Craning our necks to look at the tops of the trees, all we could manage were record shots as the Pine Warbler hopped around the branches
Getting great views despite the height, our cameras had attracted another birder – a local who seemed to visit Mead Botanical Garden regularly. Striking up a conversation and knowing that Barred Owls nested somewhere in the gardens (we just weren’t sure where exactly) he was more than happy to lead us to them. 
Cooter sp - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
This Cooter was the first of many for our trip
Admiring an unusually early Wood Thrush that Alex found on the way (my favourite of the American thrushes – though I still don’t have a photo!), we were soon looking in to the eyes of a magnificent Barred Owl – what a bird! 
Barred Owl - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Barred Owl
Barred Owl - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Considerably larger than I had realised and with a beautiful barred plumage like the name suggested, one of the adults watched on from a branch as eventually the owlet popped up from inside the nest chamber. 
Baby Barred Owl - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Barred Owl chick!
With this pair nesting in Mead Botanical Garden annually, a return visit later in the morning resulted in both adults perched side by side, knowingly keeping watch down below and seemingly used to birders looking up to admire them and their family.
Barred Owl - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Barred Owl - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Hearing that a male Painted Bunting had regularly been visiting the feeders near the Butterfly Garden and Mexican sunflowers, we headed off that way in pursuit. 
Box Turtle - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Box Turtle - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Box Turtle
Despite the absence of the male, or any Painted Buntings at all for that matter, a Box Turtle nestled at the base of a shrub was a nice addition to our growing reptile list, while several Monarch butterflies fluttering around the flower beds were for me, another fantastic highlight of the trip.
Monarch Butterfly - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Monarch Butterfly
One of my favourite species of butterfly, but having never seen one in the wild before, it came as a welcome surprise to see these impressive insects floating around the garden, gliding effortlessly through the air and allowing close up views of their distinctive fiery orange wings framed by that characteristic border of jet black dotted with miniature white pearls.
Monarch Butterfly - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Cutting our losses with the Painted Buntings and tearing myself away from the Monarchs, the clear blue skies were perfect for raptor watching. Having earlier seen a large female Sharp-shinned/Cooper’s Hawk fly overhead (again our raptor ID skills failed us and it was even too quick for our local birder to get a positive ID – although it was most likely a female Sharp-shinned) we were this time rewarded with a definite male Sharp-shinned Hawk circling high up in the thermals, similar in size to our Sparrowhawks and sporting the same orange and grey plumage.
Sharp-shinned Hawk - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Sharp-shinned Hawk - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Hawk sp - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Hawk sp - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Hawk sp - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
The presumed larger female Sharp-shinned Hawk - the smaller head and wing posture pointed against the bigger still Coopers Hawk
Soon Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks rose up in the hot air to join him, quickly followed by Wood Storks, Black and Turkey Vultures, and even a male Northern Harrier as they rose further and further up in the sky. 
Red-shouldered Hawk - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Red-tailed Hawk
Northern Harrier - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Male Northern Harrier
Sadly, no Swallow-tailed Kites materialised, although the magnificent sight of a low down immature Bald Eagle joining the party was particularly impressive as it glided in on huge outstretched wings.
Bald Eagle - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Immature Bald Eagle
Having had no luck so far in locating any Carolina Wrens, and having heard one back at Alice’s Pond near the Barred Owls, we set off to finally nail this elusive species. Locating the source of the calling to a small shrubby area in one of the wetter parts of the grounds, a bit of pishing from Alex soon saw it emerge – our first Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Carolina Wren - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Carolina Wren
Calling prominently from one of the branches, we took in the distinctive white eye stripe and long curved bill, and despite being seemingly common on reports before we came out, was one of just two birds that we saw during the entire trip.
Carolina Wren - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Another bird I had been desperate to see out in the states was Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Wintering in Florida, this was yet another species that was now moving on, with few birds lingering in to April. Luckily, a female had been reported the last few days here at Mead, but we had so far not come across her. Cue our local American birder, once again on hand to impart that vital local wisdom. It seems the female had been favouring a particular tree right at the northern end of the gardens near Howell Creek, making track marks in the trunk to draw out the sap and rarely venturing away from the area – indeed our American birder had seen her just 15 minutes earlier. Leading us along the boardwalk and on to the bridge where the tree was viewable from it seemed our luck was in – one female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker resting happily on the trunk.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
In scenes reminiscent of the Central Park Blackburnian Warbler, it took me a good few panicked minutes to spot it, hidden up amongst the branches right at the top of the tree and requiring the exact angle to see. 
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Remarkably, we also saw a second individual in the trees back near the car park at the end of the morning (they’re obviously like buses) this one found by another visiting birder from the UK (who was ecstatic when we informed him there were Barred Owls on view just metres away from where he was standing!)
Brown Anole - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Brown Anole - Viera Wetlands, Florida
We found Brown Anoles sunning themselves on exposed perches throughout Mead Botanical Garden
Once again saying farewell to our American companion and thanking him for all of his much appreciated help, we explored the garden further, a lone and early Chimney Swift bringing back the excitement of seeing them for the first time in New York, while a Great Crested Flycatcher posed obligingly on a branch for photographs.
Great Crested Flycatcher - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Great Crested Flycatcher - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Great Crested Flycatcher
A flash of bright lemon yellow in the nearby boardwalk trees also revealed itself to be our only American Goldfinch of the trip, providing much more prolonged views after only getting a brief glimpse of one in Prospect Park last year.
American Goldfinch - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
American Goldfinch - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
American Goldfinch
Exploring the wooded areas further, the birds kept coming thick and fast. Palm Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Tufted Titmice flitted in the trees, while another Ruby-crowned Kinglet bobbed in the tree tops, soon lost to view and enveloped in the canopy. 
Palm Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Palm Warbler
We headed over to what turned out to be another holidaying British birder standing under a tree and looking up intently, where it transpired he had found a male Prairie Warbler – the last of our target warblers at Mead Botanical Garden. 
Prairie Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Prairie Warbler
After a careful search of the tree in question, we were rewarded with great views of this sunshine patterned warbler – all 3 of our easiest target warblers for Florida happily ticked off. 
Prairie Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Prairie Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
With bright yellow and bold black markings, we encountered a handful of Prairie Warblers during our trip, and we could often hear their high pitched and distinctive trilling emanating from high up in a tree.
Prairie Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Prairie Warbler - Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
Mead Botanical Garden, Florida
The trees around the car park area at Mead Botanical Garden were particularly rich in bird life
With our main targets accomplished at Mead, we headed on to our next site of the day – Viera Wetlands over on the east coast. Having still not seen my main target of the trip, and the whole reason for me wanting to visit Florida in the first place, we kept our eyes peeled for Swallow-tailed Kites in the skies above. 

With bright blue dominating the skyline and with the thermals rising above, the skies were alive with endless numbers of Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures, Red-shouldered Hawks, Wood Storks, White Ibis and Anhingas, all taking advantage of the beautiful weather and soaring along on the air currents.
Wood Stork - Florida
Wood Stork
Then, drifting effortlessly across the road in front of us, we finally had our prize – a pristine Swallow-tailed Kite flying right overhead before disappearing in to the trees. Success, and a brief taster of what is surely one of the most attractive raptors in the world. 

Confident we would see more and being unable to stop the car on the expressway, we pressed on, counting another distant Kite slightly further along the road. Then, turning off at the junction to take us to Viera we spotted it, a third gorgeous individual, level with the car and circling over the adjacent Burger King car park.
Swallow-tailed Kite - Florida
Swallow-tailed Kite
Hoping for what would be mouth-watering views and diverting in to the car park in a state of excitement, we quickly drove round behind the buildings to where our Kite was slowly and elegantly patrolling the area, mere feet above us and providing absolutely crippling views – we simply couldn’t have asked for better unless the Kite had landed on our own heads. 
Swallow-tailed Kite - Florida
With the classic combination of sophisticated pure white and jet black markings framed by the prefect blue of the sunny Florida sky, this was one of my absolute favourite birding experiences of all time, and without doubt the unequivocal highlight of my entire trip. If anyone has never been to Florida or Central America to see Swallow-tailed Kites up close then go – they are amazing.
Swallow-tailed Kite - Florida
With our Kite having disappeared around the corner of the restaurant and seemingly vanishing in to thin air (it obviously didn’t fancy a burger today) we pressed on for the final few minutes to Viera Wetlands, a fantastic reserve full to the brim of confiding wetland species - and alligators. Indeed, we saw several lining the banks right next to the footpath (one was even munching on an unfortunate American Coot) but with them mostly resting in the baking hot sun, they didn’t have the energy to bother us.
American Alligator - Viera Wetlands, Florida
American Alligator
Loggerhead Shrike - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Loggerhead Shrike - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Loggerhead Shrike
Enjoying fantastic views of a Loggerhead Shrike that greeted us at the entrance, we headed off in search of some of the characteristic and unique birds that the Florida wetlands hold. 
Viera Wetlands, Florida
Tricoloured Heron - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Tricoloured Heron
Green Heron - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Green Heron
Like the majority of sites in Florida, Tricoloured, Green, Great and Little Blue Herons fished just feet away on the banks, while Belted Kingfishers dived from perch to post in the hunt for small fish and crustaceans. Ospreys were also incredibly numerous here, and several nests were positioned on platforms specially created for these familiar fish eating raptors.
Roseate Spoonbill - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Roseate Spoonbill
Walking in between the cells, a lone Roseate Spoonbill provided more great views scooping in the water, and it wasn’t long before Alex had found our next lifer – an adult Sandhill Crane sat resting in the reedbed, extremely camouflaged and hidden behind the reeds.
Sandhill Crane - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Sandhill Crane
Whilst taking photos of the crane, I spotted a bird fly in that I had definitely wanted to see on our trip, and one that was another Florida speciality in America – Limpkin
Limpkin - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Limpkin
Alerting Alex, we headed up the path towards this unusual bird, getting to within feet of what was (like many of the birds in Florida) an exceptionally confiding individual.
Limpkin - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Limpkin - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Limpkin - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Portrait of a Limpkin
The only extant species in the genus ‘Aramus’, Limpkins have no other living relatives, looking superficially like a cross between a large rail and an Ibis, but actually being more closely related to cranes. Feeding on the large Apple Snails that littered the shallows, it was fantastic to see one so close, and this remarkably turned out to be the only individual of the trip that we managed to get good views of.
Limpkin - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Limpkin - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Apple Snails - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Apple Snails - a Limpkin's favourite food!
Viera Wetlands also held several dragonflies, and one in particular - the Halloween Pennant - caught my eye as being exceptionally beautiful, with the amber tinted wings and black spots especially attractive. 
Halloween Pennant - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Halloween Pennant
Luckily, it posed happily on a stick allowing some photographs for identification.
Halloween Pennant - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Halloween Pennant - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Halloween Pennant - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Deciding to head over to the Caracara Trail section of the reserve in the pursuit of – you guessed it – Caracaras, it wasn’t long before Alex had remarkably picked one out – a distant individual flying across the sky at the other side of the cells and gliding over the trees. With distinctive black and white wing markings in flight there was no mistaking a Crested Caracara even at a distance, and luckily we encountered several more birds that showed much closer during the trip.
Viera Wetlands - Florida
With Crested Caracara now in the bag, we were free to explore the wetlands at leisure. Pied-billed Grebes bobbed about on the pools, while a pair of Forster’s Terns perched obligingly on the posts offering great scope views. Several huge Caspian Terns also darted round the lagoons, their powerful flight and sudden dives no match for any unsuspecting fish below while Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds darted to and from the reedbeds every few steps. We were also able to get a better look at the Anhingas – wings outstretched and drying off in the sun – the dagger like bill much longer and thinner than a cormorants and perfect for impaling and catching small fish.
Anhinga - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Anhinga
Anhinga - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Anhinga - Viera Wetlands, Florida
With Least Bittern a distinct possibility here at Viera Wetlands, it was purely by chance that I saw one make the brief flight between reedbeds as I had my bins raised. Unfortunately, Alex hadn’t seen it, and a lengthy half hour stake out of the patch of reeds it had flown in to ensued. Despite combing every single section of what must only have been a couple of metres, the Least Bittern proved impossible to relocate (much to Alex’s frustration) and it wasn’t until we had headed to the other side of the cell that we eventually saw it – flying out of the reeds and across the water in to the opposite reedbed. Success and relief! Similar to a Little Bittern but a tad smaller, the ginger and black wings were distinctive, and we got great views as this smallest of herons passed by, legs trailing as it crashed in to the reeds. Getting a brief view on the stems before it melted in to the reedbed, we’d been incredibly lucky and this proved to be the only individual of the entire trip, perseverance, clearly paying off.
American White Ibis - Viera Wetlands, Florida
American White Ibis
With time pressing on and the heat becoming slightly unbearable, we headed back to the car park via an impressive White Ibis roost, stopping by the Viera Wetlands entrance to admire two Mottled Ducks bathing at close quarters in one of the shallow pools. 
Mottled Duck - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Mottled Duck
Mottled Duck - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Mottled Duck - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Mottled Duck - Viera Wetlands, Florida
A pair of Florida Softshell Turtles resting on the banks also gave us our first proper look at these interesting creatures out of the water.
Florida Softshell Turtle - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Florida Softshell Turtle
Florida Softshell Turtle - Viera Wetlands, Florida
Arriving at our hotel in Palm Bay for a well-earned rest, we tucked in to a delicious meal of grilled chicken and fried mushrooms at the local Applebees before heading off to sleep – another early morning ahead of us the next day when we would head off in search of some pine specialities around the shores of Lake Kissimmee.
Viera Wetlands, Florida

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