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....

Monday, 17 July 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 1 (Orlando)

Day 1 -  Monday 28th March 2016

Florida – home of the world famous everglades and packed full of Alligator infested swamps, twisting mangroves, glorious beaches and a wealth of mouth-watering birds – some found nowhere else in the US. A birders paradise. With a mix of Florida specialities, overwintering American species, Caribbean strays and a glut of birds passing through on migration, the Sunshine State is the perfect destination for birders and one of the top locations for seeing some of the fantastic species that America has to offer.

Having experienced New York last spring when migration was in full swing, we were keen to return, and with the draw of such beauties as Swallow-tailed Kites, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Painted Buntings on offer, Florida was the obvious choice.
Swallow-tailed Kite - Florida
Swallow-tailed Kite
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Florida
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Painted Bunting - Florida
Painted Bunting
General Housekeeping...

Arranging our flights direct from Manchester to Orlando International Airport, we had two weeks to explore - starting our journey in Orlando before heading over to the east coast and Miami, down to the Florida Keys stopping off at Key West and the Dry Tortugas, before heading back up to Orlando via the west coast and St Petersburg near Tampa. 

Unlike in New York where we relied on public transport to get about, this time we hired a car for the duration of our trip, picking up from the Hertz desk in the airport (luckily taking out the full insurance!) for a reasonable price. With a journey spanning nearly 1000 miles across the state, we made use of 9 different hotels in total, not staying in the same place for more than 2 nights and ranging from a luxurious lodge suite in Key Largo to a cosy French boutique in St Petersburg, a well-furnished beachside apartment in Miami and a variety of comfy hotels and suites in Orlando.


The birds...

Setting off from Manchester early on the morning of March 28th, after a long flight of just over 8 hours we hadn’t even touched down on the runway before we had achieved our first lifer – a serpent like Anhinga hunting in one of the many water bodies dotted around the airport. We were off to a great start already! Looking out from the plane's windows, Great and Snowy Egrets lined the margins of the many pools, while several vultures and hawks circled distantly over the trees, taking advantage of the midday thermals. Leaving behind the chilly English weather, the 28° - 32°C we experienced in Florida was a huge but welcome change – although at times the extensive heat became a little bit too much and made birding especially challenging!
Airport Breakfast
Delicious breakfast to fuel us for the 8 hour flight!
Ice formations
Followed by beautiful ice formations over the North Atlantic
Ice formations
Speeding through customs and picking up our large Toyota hire car that would be our mode of transport for the fortnight, we were soon on our way, Alex navigating through the Orlando highways as we picked up several familiar birds – Ospreys were a regular sight fishing while Black Vultures, Common Grackles and Great Blue Herons were all reminiscent of the avian fauna of New York.
Osprey - Florida
American Black Vulture - Florida
American Black Vulture
Whilst the birds were familiar, the landscape in Florida was extremely different to that we’d experienced in the Big Apple – gone were the skyscrapers, bustling streets and yellow taxi cabs and in their place were huge expanses of water and lakes, while small pools and marshy ditches lined every roadside, providing a secret haven for birds in amongst the hotels, restaurants and theme park rides scattered across Orlando. Florida definitely wasn’t short of bird life!
Florida - Alex Jones
Arriving at our hotel where we would be based for the next two nights, unpacking the car turned in to a half hour long exercise – the trees surrounding the car park were absolutely alive with birds. At least 10 Palm Warblers fed up amongst the leaves, flitting from branch to branch along with several Yellow-rumped Warblers, while Alex expertly picked out a fine Blue-headed Vireo
Palm Warbler - Orlando, Florida
Palm Warbler - Orlando, Florida
Palm Warblers were one of the most abundant warbler species we saw in Florida
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Orlando, Florida
Yellow-rumped Warbler were also seen in large numbers
Blue-headed Vireo - Orlando, Florida
Blue-headed Vireo
This was a species we had expected to see further on in our journey, but remarkably this turned out to be our only one of the trip – an extremely lucky find! With a slate-grey/blue head and bold white eye markings, this was a new Vireo species for us that we hadn’t encountered before, and with the overwintering Florida birds just starting to move away from their wintering grounds, this was without doubt a migrating bird on the move.
Blue-headed Vireo - Orlando, Florida
Blue-headed Vireo - Orlando, Florida
A familiar squeak alerted us to a single Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, while a high pitched trilling overhead betrayed the presence of 10+ Cedar Waxwings powering north.

Delighted with our early success and buzzing from the fantastic feeling that seeing a new bird for the first time creates, we hastily dumped our bags in the room before heading out for a walk around the hotel complex. A quick stop across the road revealed another migratory flock of 15+ Yellow-rumped Warblers, while a distant hawk sat on a telegraph pole once again exposed our weakness in raptor ID – Red-shouldered or Red-tailed – we just weren’t sure.
Hawk sp - Orlando, Florida
Distant Hawk sp. - probably Red-shouldered
With our hawk having disappeared off behind the trees we explored the edge of a large pond next to the hotel car park. Several more Palm Warblers responded extremely well to Alex’s pishing, flocking in to the adjacent tree and providing spectacular views, allowing us both to get some photographs of what is a relatively subtlety coloured warbler in terms of American standards.
Palm Warbler - Orlando, Florida
Having cleaned up on warblers in New York last May, relatively few species would be new to us here in Florida, and along with Pine and Prairie, Palm was one of our key missing target warblers. One of the first migrants to make a move, we were far too late to see any on our trip in May last year, so it was a great feeling to have already nailed one of our three main target warblers. With a gorgeous cinnamon cap and pale yellow throat, Palm Warblers turned out to be one of the most abundant species of the trip, and their characteristic high pitched chipping and tail flicking were a feature at almost every site we visited.
Palm Warbler - Orlando, Florida
With jet lag setting in and needing to stock up on supplies, we had one last look at the lake in the hope of spotting our first Alligators. While there was an absence of any sharp teeth, we did manage to spot a huge Florida Softshell Turtle rising up to the surface amongst the gloom – our first new reptile of many for the trip.
Florida Softshell Turtle - Orlando, Florida
Florida Softshell Turtle
Driving just down the road to pick up the essential juice, biscuits and crisps that would keep us going over the next fortnight, I spotted our first Wood Stork feeding in one of the roadside pools. All too brief and unable to stop, we luckily achieved much better views of this Florida speciality at several sites later on in the trip.
Wood Stork - Orlando, Florida
Wood Stork - luckily we got much better views later on in the trip
Juice stocks!
For a day when no serious birding was planned and having barely left the hotel grounds, 4 lifers was an excellent start to our trip, and after a quick snack we fell in to a much needed sleep (being awake for nearly 24 hours was starting to take its toll) looking forward to the birding delights the next 12 days would bring.

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