Birding Southeastern Florida Trip (April, 2003)
Before our freckles fade, we wanted to tell our fellow bird lovers about the great trip we had to Southeastern Florida the first week of April. Most of our time was spent between two locations: The beaches and environs of Melborne near Orlando and the suburbs of Broward County near Fort Lauderdale. Melborne is on one of the barrier Islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River. The best birding sites we visited were Merritt Island Nature Wildlife Refuge just above Cape Canaveral, and Shark Valley in the Everglades.
Patrick, my intrepid 11-year-old birder, had set a goal to see the Florida Scrub Jay. He did that and more recording a grand total of 74 species.
The Mockingbird is Florida's state bird, and no wonder. These birds were everywhere we went. Once I inadvertently set off my rental cars alarm (much to my chagrin) and a nearby Mockingbird promptly imitated it! (Or was it mocking me??)
In the suburbs of Broward County, it was not unusual to see the Great and Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons wading in the reflection pools of corporate complexes or White Ibis feeding on peoples front lawns (no plastic flamingoes, I'm pleased to report). Flocks of wood storks were often overhead, as were the various exotic parrots that have established feral communities in the city parks. It was interesting to us that the most common dove we saw was the Eurasian Collared Dove rather than our own ubiquitous Morning Dove. We also saw a White-Winged dove and Muscovy Ducks (who refused to waddle out of our way when we drove down a small suburban street). At a local park we observed several Cattle Egrets (there was a horse stable there). They were following a tractor that was mowing down a field. Huge flocks of Turkey and Black Vultures wheeled in the sky above the landfills that created the only hills in the County!
A drive north to Melborne gave us the opportunity to explore the beaches and scrub restoration areas on the Atlantic Ocean. Far out to sea we could see Brown Boobies and Northern Gannets. Their 30-foot plunges into the water were fascinating to watch. Brown Pelicans in V-formation caught the updrafts off the dunes. On the beach, the most common shorebird was the Ruddy Turnstone, not yet in breeding plumage. Sanderlings were also common, as were Spotted Sandpipers picking at the dozens of jellyfish that littered the sand. We also identified Semipalmated Sandpipers after much observation and debate. In this area, Fish Crows were everywhere, along with Boat-Tailed Grackles. The most common gull was the Ring-Billed, although we saw Laughing Gulls as well. There was one flock of Royal Terns that visited our beach every day. When fishermen set up their poles, Brown Pelicans and a Great Blue Heron would stake out a territory around them. These birds allowed us within a few feet of them, leading to some great pictures.
Coconut Point's scrub restoration area was just a half-mile from our motel, so we hiked some mornings across the park from the beach to the Indian River. In that wonderfully subtropical environment, with blooming cacti and dripping Spanish moss, we saw a female Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, Blue Jays, Acadian Flycatcher, Cardinals and the ever-singing Carolina Wren. The Carolina Wrens down there have a Florida accent I had to catch one in my binos to be absolutely sure that's what was singing! At the River we saw Cormorants, Royal Terns, a Kingfisher, an Osprey and dolphins.
Another wonderful outing for us was a visit to Sebastian Inlet, a fisherman's mecca. The highlight of this trip was the sight of two manatees in the surf just 10 yards off the beach. Unfortunately we didn't have our bathing suits and couldn't join them. Around Sebastian Inlet we added a Dickcissel, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Swamp and Savannah Sparrows to our list.
By far the most rewarding trip was the day we spent at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and its Black Point Wildlife Drive. Yes, I'm a bit ashamed to say we did a lot of birding from our air-conditioned car, but that's the way much of the park is designed. This 43 mile long Barrier Island is managed by the Department of Interior. I can barely do justice to the experience of coasting down a dirt road, no other cars in sight, looking out to see miles of salt marshes, scrub, freshwater impoundments and hundreds of birds. Amid the alligators we listed the Osprey, Glossy Ibis, Anhinga, Blue-winged Teal, Common Moorhen, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Long-necked Stilt, Tri-colored Heron, Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, Redwing Blackbird, American Coot, and Pied-billed Grebe. The Boat-Tailed Grackles were really bold- as soon as we'd stop the car they'd mob us. Guess they're use to handouts from the tourists!
500 species of wildlife have been observed in this refuge including 21 federal and state listed threatened or endangered species. The parks bird list has 330 species. In the distance, the launching pads for the NASA Space Shuttles could be clearly seen from some spots.
It was here we were hoping to see a Florida Scrub Jay. This refuge is one of their last nesting sites. We managed to see three of these gorgeous birds in fact, they are gregarious and not difficult to see in their habitat.
Merritt Island was wonderful, and so was our visit to Shark Valley in the Everglades. Our goal was to see the Roseate Spoonbill and Purple Gallinule and we were rewarded with great views of both from the tram car. Even the tour guide was surprised when we came upon a Great White Heron on the side of the road. They are a rarity usually observed in the Keys. One highlight of the walk we took after the tour was a Green-Backed Heron, frozen and intent, just three feet away. Attempts to hike down trails around the overlook area were thwarted by three large alligators hogging the path. That's OK, guys, you go ahead! It was here that we ran into our first American Crow, and what a wise guy. The tour guide warned us all to take our things, as this Crow was well known for stealing car keys, snacks and hats from the tram as soon as it was vacated. Sure enough, as we looked over our shoulders, there he was, checking out the seats.
As wonderful as those places were, what will stay with me longest is the sight of Great and Snowy Egrets calmly wading in little pockets of wetlands right next to the roar and bustle of the Florida Turnpike. Birds that were nearly extinct at the turn of the century due to the millinery industry are now common and seem entirely accustomed to urban environments.
On our last day before flying home, we added Mallards and Canadian Geese to our list. In the dusk, a Nighthawk flew over. After all the unusual birds we had seen, these seemed like old friends.
With family in Florida, we'd visit regularly regardless, but with these birding experiences, we'll be even happier to return.
By Joanne and Patrick Susoeff