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....

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 2 (Merritt Island)

Day 2 -  Tuesday 29th March 2016

With our internal body clocks still operating on UK time, we found ourselves wide awake before 5am, the sky outside still pitch black and eerily quiet. While a seemingly insomniac Northern Cardinal was calling loudly from the branch outside our window, there was little chance many other birds would be active at this time of morning, so we waited a couple of hours before heading out to start our first full day of birding, the excitement starting to build.  
Florida, America
After last night’s success in the trees of the hotel’s car park, we once again struck lucky this morning – a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet bumbled through the leaves amongst the now familiar Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Orlando, Florida
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Another new bird for us both and like the previous day's Blue-headed Vireo, this was an overwintering species that we weren’t sure if we would catch up with, so it was great to ease the pressure so early on. Similar to our Goldcrests and equally as small, this was the American equivalent, and we only managed a few record shots before it had disappeared high up in to the branches.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Orlando, Florida
Our first port of call on our epic two week Florida road trip was to be the excellent Merritt Island Nature Reserve, a coastal haven that boasts an impressive number of birds and wildlife within its boundaries. Putting our British nature reserves well and truly to shame, Florida was full to the brim of pristine wildlife refuges, examples of unspoiled, well maintained habitat and a true paradise for wildlife lovers, birdwatchers and photographers alike. Whilst there, we visited several locations on ‘The Great Florida Birding Trail’ – a fantastic idea that maps out all of the hidden gems that Florida has to offer and makes them accessible for all to enjoy.
Great Florida Birding Trail
Florida
The extensive wetland habitat throughout Florida was full of birds
Before even reaching our destination of the Merritt Island Visitor Centre, the new birds kept rolling in. Our first ever Wild Turkey feeding on the side of the expressway was extremely exciting, while a chance stop off at some suitable looking habitat near St John’s River provided our first true taste of what birding in Florida has to offer. Whilst only there for a quarter of an hour or so and not moving from the lookout point the entire time, we racked up an impressive number of species. Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds and both Common and Boat-tailed Grackles called and flitted through the reeds, while a pair of Black-necked Stilts were our next new birds of the trip. Feeding in the murky water way out in front of us we managed some decent scope views, while a second Wood Stork provided the chance to get a better look at this distinctive species.
Boat-tailed Grackle - Florida
Boat-tailed Grackle
A small brown sparrow feeding in the grass at the side of the water turned out to be our first Savannah Sparrow, one of a handful we saw during our time in Florida. 
Savannah Sparrow - St John's River, Florida
Savannah Sparrow
Relatively drab looking in appearance, we managed some decent shots as it hopped along the rocks, before a bright yellow thrush-sized bird took our attention away. Trying to work out what it could have been, all was revealed when our first Eastern Meadowlark of the trip crept in to view. Much larger than I expected (more the size of a Quail) we watched as a second bird flew in to view, proceeding to sing it’s beautiful, fluty and distinctive song from the top of a nearby conifer.
Eastern Meadowlark - St John's River, Florida
Eastern Meadowlark
A large grey bird hovering over the lake soon caught my attention – reminiscent of a bird of prey of some sort. Alerting Alex and struggling to determine what it was, all was revealed when the bird suddenly plunged into a powerful vertical dive straight into the water – Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher - St John's River, Florida
Belted Kingfisher
This was a species we had been looking forward to catching up with, and a bird that despite seeing in many photos, was significantly larger in real life than pictures portray. Similar in size to a Jay, we saw several of these charismatic aquatic hunters during our time in Florida, and they became a regular sight perched on telephone wires up and down the roads.
Belted Kingfisher - Merritt Island, Florida
St John’s River also revealed our first American Alligator basking in the sun on the side of the bank and not moving a muscle – thankfully a stretch of water separating him and us. Further bubbles and movement in the murky depths hinted that there may have been more than just the one present, and being our first alligator in the wild, we stopped to admire and take photos of this prehistoric reptile (whilst hoping none lurking in the shallows fancied us for lunch).
American Alligator - St John's River, Florida
American Alligator
Brown Anole - St John's River, Florida
Brown Anole
A Brown Anole resting on the rocks below was our first ‘small’ reptile of the trip, the first of many of this numerous species which has colonised Florida from Cuba
Eastern Pondhawk - Florida
This Eastern Pondhawk was also our first dragonfly species of the trip
Moving on from St John’s River, we continued on with our journey to Merritt Island, marvelling at the many Ospreys and Bald Eagles that seemed to be perched on almost every post along the way.
Bald Eagle - Merritt Island, Florida
Bald Eagle
Stopping en route at a layby just before the entrance, we were also able to admire a hundred strong flock of Black Skimmers resting on the sand – at one point having them fly a foot over the top of our car in a swirling mass of black, white and red.
Black Skimmer - Merritt Island, Florida
Black Skimmer - Merritt Island, Florida
Black Skimmer - Merritt Island, Florida
Black Skimmer - Merritt Island, Florida
Black Skimmer
Black Skimmers - Merritt Island, Florida
A foraging American White Ibis taking advantage of the scraps left behind was our next new bird of the trip, providing fantastic views and offering a great opportunity to get a good look at this beautiful bird up close. Abundant throughout Florida, White Ibis were numerous at almost every site we visited, and we frequently saw flocks of birds flying over whilst driving from location to location.
American White Ibis - Merritt Island, Florida
American White Ibis - Merritt Island, Florida
American White Ibis
Western Willet - Merritt Island, Florida
Western Willet - we saw just one individual on the way in to Merritt Island - told apart from the more familiar Eastern Willets by the paler colouration and longer, thinner bill. Currently just a subspecies of Willet, this is a potential split for the future.
Arriving at Merritt Island Visitor Centre, our first port of call was to stop off at the feeders in an attempt to locate the gorgeous Painted Buntings that are regularly reported from here in the winter months. A quick scan of the surrounding ground revealed a single female, quite timid in comparison to the boisterous Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds that were also busying themselves below. 
Painted Bunting - Merritt Island, Florida
Female Painted Bunting
Not quite the rainbow coloured male I was hoping for, her green hues were still subtly beautiful, and we enjoyed watching as she fed shyly on the seed.
American Black Vulture - Merritt Island, Florida
American Black Vulture - Merritt Island, Florida
American Black Vulture - this confiding individual happily sat on the Visitor Centre roof!
Exploring the compound some more, we came across our first butterflies of the trip – a White Peacock settled on the ground allowing for some photos while several magnificent yellow and black swallowtail species flew powerfully over the reeds. 
White Peacock - Merritt Island, Florida
White Peacock - Merritt Island, Florida
White Peacock
Heading further out on to the boardwalk and in to the trees, we experienced more lepidoptera delights, as delicate and intricately patterned wings fluttered around us in scenes more reminiscent of a tropical butterfly exhibit back home – incredible. Not particularly experienced in American butterfly ID, Zebra Heliconian was the only species I could positively put a name to, the bright yellow and black markings distinctive. 
Zebra Heliconian
Zebra Heliconian (Photo taken in Conwy Butterfly Jungle)
Glasswing Butterfly
We also saw a single Glasswing butterfly in the forested area near the Visitor Centre (Photo taken in Conwy Butterfly Jungle)
Turning my attention to several reptiles perching motionless on the tree trunks surrounding the path, a Brown Anole showed off the ruby red colours of its throat fan, while a nearby Green Anole (the only species of anole native to the US) posed obligingly for some photos – the fauna of America really was fantastic!
Brown Anole - Merritt Island, Florida
Brown Anole
Green Anole - Merritt Island, Florida
Green Anole
With a calling Carolina Wren not playing ball in its elusive game of hide and seek with us, and with a further stake-out at the feeders for my hoped for male Painted Bunting drawing a blank, we headed back to the car ready to move on to our next target – the endemic Florida Scrub Jay. Investigating the trees surrounding the car park before we left, I caught sight of a flash of bright yellow amongst the leaves, followed by bold black and white. Instantly calling it is a Yellow-throated Warbler I hastily backtracked, wondering whether it could have been a male Yellowthroat instead - a much commoner migrant. My instincts had been right however, and seconds later a glorious adult Yellow-throated Warbler emerged out in to the open, the sunshine yellow throat framed by humbug black and white markings.
Yellow-throated Warbler - Merritt Island, Florida
Yellow-throated Warbler
For the next quarter of an hour we watched this incredible warbler as it foraged in the trees above us, providing stunning views at close range. Actively feeding and being constantly on the move however made getting any reasonable shots very tricky indeed!
Yellow-throated Warbler - Merritt Island, Florida
Yellow-throated Warbler - Merritt Island, Florida
One of the rarer warblers we were hoping to catch up with, and originally planning to head up to Gainesville at the end of our trip specifically to search for this species on its breeding grounds (we were definitely glad we had changed our plans now after seeing it on the first day!) it was great to have nailed this uncommon warbler on our first day!
Yellow-throated Warbler - Merritt Island, Florida
Yellow-throated Warbler - Merritt Island, Florida
Yellow-throated Warbler - Merritt Island, Florida
Moving on to our next port of call at the Scrub Ridge Trail, an unfortunate half hour delay stuck at the end of the visitor centre drive due to an oncoming ‘wide load’ was made somewhat worthwhile by point blank views of a pair of foraging Northern Parulas. Extremely small and dainty, we admired their tropical throat markings and before long were thankfully soon on our way again, hoping to catch up with the only endemic to the Sunshine state – the enigmatic Florida Scrub Jay.
Bella Moth - Merritt Island, Florida
Bella Moth - one of the only species of moth we saw on our trip.
Mangrove Buckeye - Merritt Island, Florida
Merritt Island was great for butterflies, including this Mangrove Buckeye we spotted on the Scrub Jay Loop
Exploring the well-known Scrub Jay loop in an effort to locate any Jays sadly drew a blank however, although we did manage to add two new birds in the form of a flyover Roseate Spoonbill and a foraging Reddish Egret in one of the pools. Running around in an increasingly crazy fashion, we could only assume this was some sort of hunting strategy for Reddish Egrets, as several individuals later on in the trip also adopted this strange pattern of moving.
Reddish Egret - Merritt Island, Florida
Reddish Egret
With a singing Marsh Wren back at the car park not revealing itself from the depths of a thicket of scrub despite intensive pishing from Alex, and armed with fresh gen that the Florida Scrub Jays liked the left hand path along the water, we headed off down the Scrub Ridge Trail in pursuit of our target. It didn’t take long before we were successful – Alex soon spotted a fine adult perched on a bush further down the path, and after getting some reasonable scope views we crept off down the trail in an effort to get closer to this gorgeous bright blue endemic. 
Florida Scrub Jay - Merritt Island, Florida
Florida Scrub Jay
Florida Scrub Jay Trail - Merritt Island, Florida
The path we eventually found our Scrub Jays on
Getting to within a few metres and soon noticing a second individual over to our right, we were treated to fabulous views of these showy birds, clearly unperturbed by human presence (some will even land on birders heads and cameras!) and showing incredibly well, often popping up in the shrubs right next to us. 
Florida Scrub Jay - Merritt Island, Florida
Florida Scrub Jay - Merritt Island, Florida
Able to relax, the pressure was now off after what had been an unsuccessful and worrying few hours searching earlier – we couldn’t visit Florida and dip Scrub Jays!
Florida Scrub Jay - Merritt Island, Florida
Spot the Scrub Jay...
Endemic to the state of Florida having been split from the Scrub Jay complex, these were one of our main targets of the trip, and it was an amazing experience to get such incredible views of these extremely special birds.
Florida Scrub Jay - Merritt Island, Florida
Florida Scrub Jay - Merritt Island, Florida
Leaving the Scrub Jays in peace, and with the locals informing us that the Manatees were back at the special Manatee watch point just 5 minutes away, we quickly headed off in an effort to locate these charismatic and gentle aquatic mammals. A relative of the elephant, Manatees favour the warm shallow waters and bays of Florida, returning to Merritt Island in the spring after wintering in several well-known localities in the warm springs of Florida.
Manatee Deck - Merritt Island, Florida
Manatee Deck - Merritt Island, Florida
The Manatee watch point!
A species I was desperate to catch up with, I was thrilled that they were back - having wondered whether we would be a tad too early. Thankfully we weren’t, and we were soon enjoying point blank views of these huge and unmistakable mammals, around 10 moving around in the water right in front of us, splashing their tails and rising up to the surface to breathe. Absolutely incredible, and for me, one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Manatees - Merritt Island, Florida
Manatees - Merritt Island, Florida
Manatees - Merritt Island, Florida
Manatees - Merritt Island, Florida
Manatees!
No-one is sure why the Manatees return to the watch point each spring. It may be because there is an abundance of food in the canal at Merritt Island or it could simply be that the herd is site faithful – regardless, it was fantastic to see these unusual animals up close and it was an amazing wildlife experience.
Manatees - Merritt Island, Florida
Drawing my eyes away from the Manatees frolicking in the water below, we soon had our next lifer of the trip – a small flock of Brown Pelicans were fishing in the canal under the bridge with several more resting on the railings. 
Brown Pelican - Merritt Island, Florida
Brown Pelican
Wild Pelicans were something I had been hugely looking forward to seeing in Florida, having never experienced one in the wild before, and this was one of two species of Pelican we were hoping to see over in the states – for me, the more attractive out of the two. 
Brown Pelican - Merritt Island, Florida
Brown Anole - Merritt Island, Florida
Brown Anoles also scurried over the rocks at the Manatee watch point
After several more minutes admiring the Manatees we headed off to our final point of call for the day – Black Point Wildlife Drive. A 7 mile one-way driveable trail that leads through the lush waterways of Merritt Island, this was one of the best spots on the whole reserve to experience the wealth of birdlife up close.
Anhinga - Merritt Island, Florida
Anhinga
Several Little Blue, Green and Tricoloured Herons fished amongst the shallows, while familiar Snowy Egrets hunted stealthily and patiently in the search for unsuspecting prey, often joined by much larger Great Egrets while Alligators submerged themselves in the water below.
Little Blue Heron - Merritt Island, Florida
Little Blue Heron
Tricoloured Heron - Merritt Island, Florida
Tricoloured Heron
We soon encountered another Florida speciality and our next lifer – a Mottled Duck was dabbling in the deeper water on one of the lagoons, another species we had wondered how difficult it would be to connect with. 
Mottled Duck - Merritt Island, Florida
Mottled Duck
Often hybridising with Mallards and producing intergrade offspring, pure birds can be readily distinguished by their bright yellow bills, a small distinctive black notch at the base of the bill and a clear cut, paler head than the rest of the body – all characteristics that our bird displayed. Unfortunately, the Mottled Duck population is in danger of becoming displaced by Mallards through hybridisation, similar to the situation of White-headed Ducks and Ruddy Duck influence in Europe.

Heading further along the drive we soon spotted our first American Coots of the trip – bobbing in the water in large numbers and congregating to feed in the shallow pools. 
American Coots - Merritt Island, Florida
American Coots - Merritt Island, Florida
American Coot - Merritt Island, Florida
American Coot!
Having missed the Loch Flemington bird 2 years ago, it was great to finally see in the flesh what has become a bit of an iconic bird for me…
American Coots - Merritt Island, Florida
American Coot - Merritt Island, Florida
A Common Gallinule foraging in the reeds was another new bird in quick succession, almost identical to the Common Moorhens back in the UK, but a species that has recently been split by the ABA. Both American Coots and Common Gallinules were incredibly abundant wherever we visited in Florida, and were most certainly two of the commonest species we encountered out there.
Common Gallinule - Merritt Island, Florida
Common Gallinule
Driving further, rounding a bend revealed our first American White Pelicans of the trip – two large and majestic individuals sat in the middle of the water resting, accompanied by several bright pink Roseate Spoonbills
American White Pelican - Merritt Island, Florida
American White Pelicans with Roseate Spoonbills
Larger than the Brown Pelicans we had seen earlier on in the morning, we were expecting to see many more of these peculiar birds, with huge numbers often reported from Merritt Island in particular, but unusually, apart from a large distant flock on the pools at Three Lakes WMA (another site we visited further on in our trip), these were the only two that we saw.
Black-necked Stilt - Merritt Island, Florida
Black-necked Stilt - Merritt Island, Florida
Black-necked Stilt
With the water now becoming much shallower and revealing the mudflats and sandy banks underneath, the herons, egrets, ducks and Anhingas gradually shifted to an abundance of waders – more Black-necked Stilts foraged close by while Semi-palmated Plovers, Dunlin, Willet, Stilt and Semi-palmated Sandpipers all scurried across the mud feeding frantically. 
Semi-palmated Plover - Merritt Island, Florida
Semi-palmated Plover
Waders - Merritt Island, Florida
Dowitcher sp. - Merritt Island, Florida
Long-billed Dowitcher
A small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers sadly didn’t hold any Short-billed (the Dowitcher species I was yet to see) but it wasn’t long before we had nailed another of our targets – Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit - Merritt Island, Florida
Marbled Godwit
Wintering at Merritt Island, these beautiful speckled Godwits would be moving on in the next few weeks, and we had luckily timed our trip to catch the last of the wintering birds as well as the first of the migrants.

Exploring the trail further, several more Mottled Ducks posed well for photographs, and an extremely confiding Roseate Spoonbill scooping the water with its characteristic shaped bill came so close that it wouldn’t fit in my 400m lens.
Mottled Duck - Merritt Island, Florida
Mottled Ducks
Roseate Spoonbill - Merritt Island, Florida
Roseate Spoonbill - Merritt Island, Florida
Roseate Spoonbill
At this point however, the heavens opened, and we experienced our only torrential downpour of the trip (not quite the Sunshine state anymore!). With the clouds turned a menacing shade of black and with thunder and lightning cracking down from directly overhead, we retreated to the safety of the car, enjoying a spot of lunch whilst admiring another Reddish Egret dart amusingly for fish as a lone Black Skimmer swooped low over the water, its incredible bill stretched wide open.
Reddish Egret - Merritt Island, Florida
Reddish Egret examining it's reflection
Black Skimmer - Merritt Island, Florida
Skimming in the rain... Black Skimmer amongst the raindrops
With the rain showing no sign of abating we continued on, and nearing the end of the trail, Alex finally found his sought after American Avocet
American Avocet - Merritt Island, Florida
A lone individual feeding in the deeper water, the upturned bill mirrored our Pied Avocets in Britain (but lacking the jet black cap ours sport), and just coming into breeding plumage there was also a hint of orange coming through on the breast. With just two being reported here recently (the much larger wintering numbers had diminished substantially over the past few weeks) we soon caught up with the second bird further around the bend, completely unbothered by the heavy raindrops now hammering our windscreen.
American Avocet - Merritt Island, Florida
American Avocet
With time marching on and having reached the end of Black Point Wildlife Drive, we decided to head back to the entrance ready for the drive back to Orlando, reversing mid-way to stop and admire a group of Wild Pigs foraging in the swamp.
American Black Vultures - Merritt Island, Florida
American Black Vultures
Red-shouldered Hawk - Merritt Island, Florida
Red-shouldered Hawk
Stopping to take photos of a huge gathering of American Black Vultures on a nearby power building also proved to be a good call, and resulted in our first definite Red-shouldered Hawk of the trip, along with another fine lifer in the form of a charming Common Ground Dove feeding on the gravel path. Much smaller than we had anticipated, this extremely quaint dove never stopped still, the scaly belly and short dumpy appearance distinctive compared to the long and slim Mourning Doves we had been seeing.
Common Ground Dove - Merritt Island, Florida
Common Ground Dove - Merritt Island, Florida
Record shots of the Common Ground Dove
One feature we soon noticed was that Belted Kingfishers lined the powerlines leaving Merritt Island, taking advantage of these man made perches to hunt for prey in the ditches below. 
Belted Kingfisher - Merritt Island, Florida
One individual proved to be particularly confiding, and we enjoyed excellent views as it dismantled and devoured a fresh caught crayfish in front of the car.
Belted Kingfisher - Merritt Island, Florida
Belted Kingfisher
Deciding to stop off at the Black Skimmer layby from earlier also proved to be another good call and resulted in a flock of roosting Royal Terns on a distant sand bank, while a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver (Common Loon) floating further out in the bay was an unexpected surprise.
Great Northern Diver - Merritt Island, Florida
Great Northern Diver (Common Loon)
Despite the day coming to a close, the birds just kept on coming – a small grey bird perched on a wire near the sea front houses proved to be a Loggerhead Shrike – our first of a handful seen on the trip and superficially similar to our Great Grey Shrikes in appearance. 
Loggerhead Shrike - Merritt Island, Florida
Loggerhead Shrike
Several Fish Crows cawing provided us with great views of a corvid we had only seen briefly flying over in New York, and it was great to watch as they came to blows with the White Ibises and Laughing Gulls foraging for scraps in the beach car park.
Fish Crow - Merritt Island, Florida
Fish Crow - Merritt Island, Florida
Fish Crow - Merritt Island, Florida
Fish Crow
Laughing Gull - Merritt Island, Florida
Laughing Gull
With a hugely successful first full day in Florida under our belt, we battled back through the Orlando traffic for a well-earned rest at the hotel before a delicious bite to eat of TGI Fridays Jack Daniels chicken (what else?! – our hotel was coincidentally 4 minutes away from my favourite restaurant), looking forward to what the next day would bring and to commence the hunt for my most sought after bird of the trip – Swallow-tailed Kite.
TGI Fridays Orlando

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...