Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Florida, 8-29th Aug 2006 ,
Having young children (girls of 7 and 3 at the time), it was inevitable that we would be basing a holiday around the theme parks of Florida at some stage. I had thought that this would be 2 or 3 years further down the line, but my brother Robert was planning to take his slightly older family there in 2006, and asked us to join them. We happily agreed, although this meant that we would be tied to school holidays, as his wife Andrea is a teacher, and the prices would inevitably be jacked up.
We left things too late to book an Easter break, when bird watching would have been more favourable. Besides, this would have been even more expensive than a summer booking like for like, and we also wanted 3 weeks. So August it had to be. We agreed that as there would be 8 of us (4 adults and 4 children), it would be more cost effective, and also far more enjoyable to have our own villa than stay in a hotel. This also meant that we could base ourselves a bit further away from the theme parks, getting away from all the razzmatazz at the end of the day. We also agreed that as by far the most expensive part of the holiday would be the flight cost, whatever we could do to minimise this cost element, would be worth doing. So this is how it came about that we changed planes at Chicago O’Hare on both the outgoing and return trips. More air miles, less cost. Strange but true.
In the end, we booked a spacious luxury villa with pool to accommodate myself, Jan my wife, my children Alessandria and Madeleine, Robert, Andrea and their children Joshua and Sophie. I was the only birdwatcher of the party. Nothing new there. All the bookings – flights, accommodation, insurance and hire cars were done through a company in the name of Absolutely USA.
The villa was located in a gated ‘community’ just west of US 27, about 6 miles north of Interstate 4, south of the town of Clermont, and north of Haines City. We were south west of both Orlando and Disney. The Disney parks were half an hour away maximum, north on US 27 and east on 192.
We eventually managed to secure a separate car for each family. The booking company had tried to impose a single minibus on us, which would have been impractical and inflexible, and slightly ridiculous also when nipping down the local Publix supermarket for some milk. Inevitably, the Alamo hire car people at the airport also tried to get us to upgrade our bookings, by saying that we wouldn’t fit into the cars we had pre-booked. Anyway, we resisted this and everything was fine. I had a Pontiac G6 (Vectra sized saloon) and Robert had a slightly larger and more thirsty Chevrolet Malibu.
Travelling to America in August, there would obviously be no bird migration to speak of. I anticipated that the birds that were about would either be juveniles, moulting or quiet and hidden away like there are in Britain at that time, and that the Orlando area would be hours away from any decent habitat. All this combined with the facts that we had a pretty full theme park schedule (when you are paying over £1,000 per family on tickets, you have to get your money’s worth!) and that I had been to the USA twice before, I was expecting to be able to count my lifers on one hand. How wrong I was as it turned out.
It was my 2nd visit to Florida, the previous being in 1984, when I had a whistle stop ‘been there, done it’ Greyhound trip right to Homestead (last stop before the Keys) and back, via Jacksonville, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and saw as many species as the bus windows would allow. I did however see a Yellow-crowned Night Heron that time (in Fort Lauderdale), a species I didn’t manage on the 2006 trip.
Yes, it’s fair to say that this trip was essentially a no holds barred family holiday, and bird watching would be just a bi-product for me. Fortunately though, us birdwatchers are able to get up an hour or two earlier than most people on holiday, which came in handy.
Tuesday 8 August
A very early start from our house in Otley, West Yorkshire. We met up with Robert and his family at Andrea’s brother’s house in Altrincham. He had kindly agreed to our cars being parked for 3 weeks on his drive. We then had our pre-booked minibus ride the short distance to Manchester Airport.
Flight number 1 was to Chicago O’Hare. This was a good flight with plenty of in-flight, and good views over Canada, the Great Lakes and particularly downtown Chicago on the final descent. However, far too long was spent stuck in the terminal, with little to do except eat and wait for news about the inevitable delay. At least immigration was dealt with here, we just had to worry whether our luggage would make it to the 2nd flight.
Incidently, my Chicago birdlist was 1 species – Common Starling, seen through the toughened glass windows. Not a blazing start.
The 2nd much delayed flight was to Orlando International. We had been looking forward to a decent meal on this flight, but all on offer foodwise was potato ‘chips’, pretzels and similar junk. No in-flight either. Awful, and glad when it was finished with.
At Orlando, we just had to reclaim our baggage (it all made it thankfully), spend an hour or so arguing with the car rental people (I could have bought new child seats and had enough left over for a meal out for the amount they charged me for the hire), and we were on our way.
All we then had to do was find our way out of the airport (not much smaller than Leeds), drive unfamiliar cars in the dark on multi-lane roads with no discernable road rules and misleading signage for about 40 miles and find our villa. There was little margin for error either, because to go wrong, we would have been off our maps. Much to the fury of other drivers, I trundled along in front at about 30 mph, but it paid off, as we didn’t miss a single turn or put a foot wrong.
We arrive at our villa what seemed like days later, very tired and fed up, but relieved. However, as soon as we opened the front door, all bad feelings disappeared. It was a fantastic place, much better than home! When you are used to ‘making do’ with holiday accommodation, this came as a revelation.
Wednesday 9 August
No theme parks today, oh no! Relaxing by and in our very own pool, massive $300 2-trolley shopping trip to Walmarts, (Robert and me), more pool and evening barbecue. The binoculars were sparingly used, but I think I only saw 6 bird species all day.
Thursday 10 August
With all jetlag now worn off, a full day (park opening until closing firework display), was spent at Disney’s MGM Studios. Very enjoyable, particularly the finale, although ultimately tiring. We’d all forgotten to memorise where the cars were parked, so finding them took some time. Furthermore, we both also got lost on the way home due to the poor road signage, and the two cars were separated. We recovered our position eventually, and found our way back. Over an hour later Robert and family arrived – they didn’t have a map in their car. I also managed to drag a road cone a few miles under my car before I realised what was causing the noise.
Friday 11 August
A far more easy going day than Thursday, involving poolside, some shopping and local birding for me. We had an afternoon trip to Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park. When we eventually found somewhere to base ourselves (being late arrivals this was far from easy), it was brilliant fun. I could have quite happily spent all day here.
Saturday 12 August
Another early start to visit the ‘main event’ – Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain are not to be missed. We left before closing as we knew we would be back, and took the boat trip back to the car parks. Some pool time before dark.
Sunday 13 August
Full day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Rain interrupted several of the day’s events, including the
Mount Everest ride and planned evening barbecue, which was held indoors.
Monday 14 August
I had an early morning visit to the local alligator swamp about 1 mile from the villa. After an otherwise relaxing morning, the 2 families split, and we went to Disney’s Fort Wilderness Reserve. Not exactly wilderness in the usual sense, more like a huge camp site set in a pine forest with a lake. The theme parks were only 3-4 miles away, although you wouldn’t have known it. The area was starting to look promising for birds, but again heavy rain stopped play.
We later joined the other family in Downtown Disney at Fulton’s Crab House for the evening meal. This was one of the best meals we had on the holiday, and confirmation that you can get great food in America if you pay for it. Unfortunately, if you’re strapped for cash, the food choice is pretty dire.
Tuesday 15 August
The 2 families split for the whole day, although we all headed for the east (Atlantic) coast. Robert and family went to the Kennedy Space Centre. Our trip didn’t go as planned, for although I found Merritt Island, it was the ‘lived on’ part, rather than the nature reserve part, which was 10-15 miles further up the coast as it turned out. Anyway, we made the most of where we were, had a brief stop at Cocoa Beach, drove south to a place called Melbourne, and then headed north west inland back to where we started.
It struck me about Florida, that once you get out of the urban sprawl, you’re quickly into very wild looking habitat, and unless you are on one of the interstates, the traffic dies away to a trickle. The trouble is, there is usually nowhere to stop if you do see something interesting. After a couple of days of getting overexcited at anything perched on a wire, I soon realised that 99% of the time it would be a Mourning Dove, Northern Mockingbird or one of the Grackles.
Wednesday 16 August
A full, mostly very enjoyable, but tiring day was spent by all at Sea World, the first of the non-Disney parks. All sea life from killer whales downwards to enjoy. Unfortunately, Robert and myself got separated from the rest of the party, and a couple of hours were wasted at the end of the day trying to re-group. Tempers got frayed.
Thursday 17 August
Another early trip for me to see the local gators and the attendant birdlife. This was followed by a few relaxing poolside hours. When we’d had enough of this, Robert and myself (the others didn’t want to move), headed for Disney’s other water park, Blizzard Beach. Equally barnstorming fun to Typhoon Lagoon. I think next time, I’ll just do the water parks. After all, you don’t get hot and bothered tearing down a water slide at 50 mph on your backside. A barbeque end to a very watery day.
Friday 18 August
A day at Universal Studios. Although it was good in parts, this was probably my least favourite of all the theme parks we visited. Not only because it was hopeless for birdwatching either. Finished off in an Italian restaurant in City Walk.
Saturday 19 August
A morning free for birding for myself! I headed for Orlando Wetlands. It took some finding, which involved traversing downtown Orlando on the way, but was well worth it. Slight prang in the rain in Orlando on the way home, although the driver of the pick-up in front didn’t seem to notice. Got back just in time to take my family back for a second, albeit briefer trip to Disney MGM Studios.
Sunday 20 August
A day at the Epcot Resort for everyone. A poor start to the day, due mainly to the staff’s inability to control the mad rush of people at opening time. However, it got progressively better, with a great meal late in the day at the Moroccan restaurant, followed by fireworks around the lake. They say you can’t do Epcot in just one day, but we only went there the once, and I don’t think we missed much.
Monday 21 August
The 2 families did their own thing for the most of the day. I treated my family to some Florida countryside, in the shape of Lake Louisa State Park, some 10 miles north of where we were staying. A lovely, peaceful place with lakes, forest and even at a stretch what could be called hills. There are rattlesnakes and probably bears here, although we didn’t encounter either. Unfortunately, due to the girls getting hot and bothered, we couldn’t stay as long as I would have liked. I vowed to return.
Tuesday 22 August
A second very full day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, with all staying to the bitter end to witness the firework display finale. On the whole, a great park let down by the very poor restaurants, unless you like living on American junk food.
Wednesday 23 August
As promised to myself, I returned to Lake Louisa State Park, this time alone. Some very good birding this time. When I got back, the 2 ladies had decided to do a spot of shopping, and Robert wanted to go off and do his own thing. I therefore stayed behind and minded the kids and pool. Well I didn’t mind as it happened.
Thursday 24 August
All did trip to Busch Gardens park on the edge of Tampa near the Gulf coast. Took a lot longer to get to than it should, due to misleading signposting, and a lot further away than the other parks from where we were staying. This park has an Africa and animal theme, with a few hairy coasters thrown in. Experienced a few torrential downpours, when all rides are stopped due to the risk of lightening strike. My family stopped by an Italian restaurant in Tampa on the way home.
Friday 25 August
Another day close to nature for my family. Can’t remember in which order, but we went back to Disney’s Fort Wilderness Reserve. Just like before, we got hit by heavy rain, and sat it out on a verandah, Walton’s style. Also in the day, I visited a ‘Natural Preserve Forest‘ which I had found a few miles north on US 27, then west on route 474. Not too many birds here, but a couple of good ones all the same.
Saturday 26 August
A day’s trip for all to Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Had expected to just need half a day here, then call back at Seaworld on the way home. However, it was a lot better than I was expecting at least, and we stayed for the day. Dined at the City Walk’s Hard Rock Café in the evening, and admired the rock memorabilia and revolving ’59 Cadillac suspended from the ceiling.
Sunday 27 August
All went back to Busch Gardens for a second time, without getting lost on the way this time.
Monday 28 August
Last full day sadly. Somehow, I managed to secure the whole day for birdwatching. The ladies were happy to stay with the kids at the villa and Robert wanted to go back to Sea World. Having found out on the map where the ‘proper’ part of Merritt Island was, I decided to head there. I found it alright, but no sooner had I got to the island across the causeway, then I was turned back by security. Merritt Island is very close to where the space shuttles are launched from, and as the planned shuttle launch from the day before had been postponed, it was still on the launchpad. When this is the case, the area for miles around is off limits. However, I found a stretch of shoreline which was very good for waders. Rather amusing was the sight of a couple of terrified people who fled out of the water due to an approaching fin. The dolphin meant them no harm!
Anyway, the failure yet again to get onto Merritt Island meant that there was another opportunity to vist Orlando Wetlands on the way home. All rounded off the last evening with a pre-booked pirate themed meal out on International Drive served with watered down Budweiser.
Tuesday 29 August
Last chance for a swim, then packing and trip back to the airport. At least it was daylight this time. Fortunately, Alamo didn’t notice the cracked front bumper resulting from my previous impact, which I had cleverly hidden with the licence plate. Also fortunate was the fact that my car was Virginia registered, because the Florida ones don’t have front plates!
After some last minute anguish at the airport, which required me to buy an extra hold bag and redistribute our luggage on the floor, we left Florida behind in the early afternoon in bright sunshine, but with a severe tropical storm (downgraded from a hurricane when it hit land) tearing up the state from the south just behind us.
Birding Sites and Theme Parks visited
Now that the holiday background is out of the way, on to more serious birding matters at last. The following is a brief resume of all the places visited from a birding angle, including the theme parks. Yes, I am afraid I did take my binoculars with me everywhere, although when I wasn’t actually looking for birds, they would normally be out of the way in my rucksack. And yes, some of the theme parks are good for certain types of birds, particularly heron and cormorant species. As they are also much tamer at these places than elsewhere, large birds + close proximity = great photos! I managed to avoid any strange looks by not using the optics at inopportune moments. Besides, much of the time you can just use your eyes and the camera lens.
Starting with the theme parks (in the order first visited):-
Not a good park for birds. You can leave the binoculars behind. Saw loads of House Sparrows, several Mourning Doves, a couple of Mallards, 5 White Ibis overhead, a Turkey Vulture, Common Grackles, American Crows and 3 hirundines at dusk, which appeared to be juvenile Purple Martins.
Birds noted here included Snowy Egret, Blue Jay and Common Grackle. Obviously, being a water park, binoculars (and cameras) are a no no, although if you take the big rubber rings down the Lazy River, there seem to be lots of birds to look at close to on the banks of the ‘river’.
Lots of birding potential here, but take the ferry trip rather than the monorail option between the car parks and the main entrance to maximise this. Both Anhinga and Double-crested Cormorant were seen on this lake, as were my only Ring-billed Gulls of the holiday. A probable juvenile Reddish Egret was seen on one of the islands of the lake, but they wouldn’t divert the ferry for me to have a proper look, so I’ll never know. This would have been a lifer. They are usually large numbers of American Black Vulture soaring overhead at this park. It is also full of tame Common Grackle (white eyes) and Boat-tailed Grackle (dark eyes). The White Ibis and Great White Egret are also very tame here, and easily photographed with the least capable of cameras.
Other birds seen at MK, included Snowy Egret, Osprey, Mallard, Mourning Dove, Barn Swallow, Northern Mockingbird and a Belted Kingfisher which flew over the car park !
Also has a good bird rating. Huge numbers of White Ibis and American Black Vultures about the place. Great White Egrets strut down the pavements. There is plenty of water here which brings in the birds, not least the water holes on the ‘safari’, where the vultures congregate.
Other water birds seen here were Anhinga, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Mallard, Osprey and Moorhen. Of the other birds, the most prominent were House Sparrow, Common and Boat-tailed Grackles. A few Cardinals and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird were also seen.
For birds, and photographing them, look no further than the sealion pool, at the far end of the park of course. Here you will have Snowy and Great White Egrets, White Ibis and Wood Storks almost within touching distance. I was assured by the staff that these are all wild birds, which are obviously attracted by the easy food. Not all the birds here are wild though - the Sandhill Cranes are not tickable.
I also had a brief Downy Woodpecker here, and otherwise a similar list to both MK and AK.
On our visit, this park was hopeless for birds. Apart from Feral Pigeons and House Sparrow, just single Osprey and Cardinal all day. Not even any Grackles. So if you’re going here, forget about birds, and just enjoy the show.
Having a large lake, this is a pretty good park for water birds. Commonest and tamest, as at many of the parks, were the White Ibis. I also saw here Mallards, small numbers of Great White Egret and Moorhen, 2 Double-crested Cormorants, 1 Anhinga, 2 Tricolored Herons and a single American Coot, one of only 2 all holiday.
Apart from the waterbirds, only Barn Swallow, House Sparrow and Boat-tailed Grackles were seen here.
Probably the best of all the major theme parks for wild birds, although you’ll need your wits about you in separating them from those in the collections. Basically, with it’s large collection of mainly African mammals and birds, ponds and water holes, and free food on offer for non-human guests, it is a magnet for certain types of birds.
Large numbers of White Ibis (as ever) and Laughing Gull (not seen at any of the other parks). Also good numbers of Wood Stork (the only place I saw these apart from Sea World), and plentiful very approachable Great White, Snowy and Cattle Egrets. Also a few Great Blue and Little Blue Herons seen here, and a single Black-crowned Night Heron, being my only one of the holiday.
Non-water birds included Mourning Doves, American Crow, Common and Boat-tailed Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, Cardinal and a single Red-shouldered Hawk.
There were also some American birds which appeared to be too tame or out of place, in particular Brown and American White Pelican, Hooded Merganser and Ruddy Duck, so these all got short thrift from me.
Universal Islands of Adventure
Although a great park, not much better than Universal Studios next door for birds. Also, as it is full of wet and hairy rides, best leave the optics behind.
Birds seen were Double-crested Cormorant, Mallard, Osprey, Common and Boat-tailed Grackle, House Sparrow and Northern Mockingbird.
So the theme parks need not be bad news for the bird watcher. They provided nearly all, and by far the best views of White Ibis I had. And one of my 40 or so lifers, Wood Stork, I would not have seen without visiting them.
Hit for birds: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Sea World, Epcot and Busch Gardens.
Miss for birds: MGM Studios, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and water parks.
Although we didn’t go, Robert and family also went to Gatorland. I understand, and his photos bear it out, that if you can stomach watching alligators being man-handled in a very undignified way, there is a great assortment of wild herons to enjoy here. I recall seeing Tricolored on one of his pictures.
And so to other places visited and the birds found there.
Immediate vicinity of our villa
Basically, the further you wandered, the better the birding got. Relatively little was seen from the villa. There were usually small numbers of Turkey Vulture overhead and always a few Mourning Dove and Northern Mockingbird about. In the late afternoon or evening, 1-2 Common Nighthawks could often be seen hawking over the fields. Blue Jays and Cardinal were also quite readily found, as were the odd Common Ground Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Loggerhead Shrike.
On day 3, I ventured on foot early am to a nearby pine wood. Due to the lack of paths and very long grass, I was wary of either treading on a snake or getting lost, so I stuck to the wood edge. There was plenty of bird noise coming from here, but it seemed to originate from just 3 species – Blue Jay, Cardinal and a drab sparrow-like bird which had a lovely song, but which I could not immediately identify. Anyway, they were tame, and I was soon surrounded by about 5 of them, and was able to note mentally most of the features. By reference when I got back, I worked out they were Bachman’s Sparrows. Although I intended to, I don’t know why, but I never came back here or saw this species again.
Local alligator swamp
This place was about 20 minutes walk east around the edge of the holiday complex where our villa was located. It consisted of a long canal-shaped waterway, a small round pool and the edge of a very dense huge hardwood forest. The place was great to visit in the early morning, and I came here 3-4 times then.
There was always something worth seeing either on the water’s edge or in the dense woodland behind. The more interesting birds seen in this area included Anhinga, Great and Little Blue Heron, Great White Egret, Red-shouldered Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper, Downy Woodpecker, Purple Martin, Loggerhead Shrike, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Prairie Warbler.
I also had 3 lifers here, which were not seen anywhere else, namely Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher and Ovenbird.
Apart from the birds, the round pool was also home to a respectably-sized alligator, along with some smaller ones and turtles. Some incredibly large spiders suspended their webs at head height across the path to the round pool. I walked into at least one of these things, but in the early morning they were usually easy to see, being dripping in dew.
Disney Fort Wilderness
This surprisingly peaceful place is actually within the Disney complex, and very close to Magic Kingdom. It is free to visit. As I mentioned earlier, this park is mostly pine forest, a large lake, camp sites, roads and a few trails. I’m sure I would have done better here with more time and less regular soakings.
Anyway, birds seen included Double-crested Cormorant, Anhinga, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, American Black Vulture, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Pine and Yellow-throated Warblers.
Natural Preserve Forest and another site off the route 474
I found route 474, which runs west from US 27 to the south of Lake Louisa, when I was doing some random exploring in the car.
The first site, which was only a mile or so along and to the north of the road along a red dirt track, was good for both Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers. I also had Purple Martin and Carolina Wren here, but not much else of note in the time frame, apart from a family group of wild black hogs rampaging through the woodland.
The second site was named Natural Preserve Forest, and was about 5 miles along the route 474, and on it’s south side. Maybe it was something to do with the time of day, but there seemed to be plenty of birdlife here, in habitat which looked similar to a British heathland, but frustratingly, most of it stayed in cover.
Birds which were seen here with perseverance included Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bobwhite, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker (the only ones of the holiday), Tufted Titmouse, Northern Parula and Prairie Warbler.
East Coast between Titusville (north) and Melbourne (south)
Our accidental trip to the inhabited (southern) part of Merritt Island (west of Cape Canaveral) was by no means hopeless for birds, as I did eventually find some fishing lakes, and we had a look around.
From the NASA causeway across from the mainland, birds such as Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Osprey and Royal Tern were seen, although it is difficult to stop here, and besides, we hit a flash flood. On the island, there were large numbers of Cattle Egret and American Black Vulture, and also Great White and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Heron and Moorhen.
I will however remember this area mostly for the land birds:- notably a Belted Kingfisher perched on the phone wires, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wren blasting out it’s ‘teakettle’ song, Pine, Prairie and Prothonotary Warblers, the latter being my only ones of the holiday.
Onwards to Cocoa Beach, to allow the children some time in the sand. Although there were loads of people about, this didn’t seem to scare off the birds too much. Brown Pelicans drifted passed and Sanderling and Laughing Gull were on the beach. I also had a flock of Black Terns, other distant terns which could have been Common or Forsters, and ‘black-billed’ ones which were either Sandwich or Gull-billed, but distance put paid to a positive ID. A single ‘interesting’ wader amongst the Sanderling drew my attention, and needed sorting out. I must have looked very comical chasing around the beach after a wader which didn’t want to fly; one eye on the kids of course, as Jan had gone back to the car. Anyway, it eventually did fly a short way, revealing the bold black and white wing pattern of a Willet, a lifer. I’d suspected as much, but being in non-breeding plumage, it was a very non-descript bird until it did fly.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is east of Titusville, taking route 406 from Interstate 75. This is where I hit the skids yards after getting on the island on my other trip to the east coast, and made a forced u-turn before the guns came out. Just after setting back, I pulled into a lay-by next to the Indian River between the island and the mainland. It stunk awful, but there were plenty of waders close at hand. This was one of the very few times on the holiday when I was glad to have taken my scope, as most of the time birds were too close or big to need it. I had the closest deck views of the holiday of Turkey Vulture here, and a nice assortment of waders comprising Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher and last but least, Turnstone.
Lake Louisa State Park
I made 2 trips to this excellent place, once with the family, and once by myself.
The lakes themselves (there are several, Louisa is just the largest), weren’t particularly great for birds, with just the odd Anhinga and Little Blue Heron being seen. The best birding was in the woodland and grassland areas.
In the open areas, one of the commonest birds was Red-winged Blackbird. Plenty of American Black and Turkey Vultures were in the skies. I also had a single Bobwhite and my only Eastern Meadowlarks and Eastern Towhee of the holiday here, along with the odd Red-shouldered Hawk and Common Ground-Dove. Prairie Warbler was seen, and other warblers seemed to be about, but they just wouldn’t come out of cover.
The woodland was mostly coniferous, with plenty of ground cover and shrubs. Even though it was August, it was brilliant for birds, I just wish I’d had more time.
The more interesting species seen in this woodland were Wild Turkey, numerous Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Black and White Warbler, Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler. Maybe warbler migration had started, I certainly wasn’t expecting Black and White this time of year at least.
Orlando Wetlands Park
Although Lake Louisa was very good, this place was quite outstanding, and the best birding venue of the holiday. This place is east of Orlando on State Highway 50 to Titusville until the settlement of Christmas (American town names take some beating) is reached. Here, take the North Fort Christmas Road north for about 3 miles. When this road turns sharp left, take the track (Wheeler Road) off to the right for a couple of miles to it’s end. Make sure you take plenty of water here, because the trails are long, and it’s mostly unshaded.
Both visits, I was greeted by tame, very photographable Red-shouldered Hawks on leaving the car. Plenty of both American vulture species were in the air. Although I didn’t do particularly well on this holiday for diversity of raptors (only 5 species seen in 3 weeks), both Crested Caracara and Swallow-tailed Kite can apparently be seen at this place on occasion.
Most water birds (with the exception of White Ibis and Wood Stork), were seen in far greater numbers here than anywhere else:- Anhinga, Great White and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and Moorhens all abounded. One of only 2 American Coots of the holiday was seen here, and a single Green Heron, a species which I was expecting to be common on the holiday.
Of the passerines, Boat-tailed Grackles were abundant, and plenty of Barn Swallows and Red-winged Blackbird were about.
What was un-missable about this park though was the number and quality of species I didn’t see anywhere else, most of which were lifers. This mouth-watering list included:-
Pied-billed Grebe, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Limpkin, American Purple Gallinule, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, White-eyed Vireo and a probable Brown Thrasher. Fabulous!
Apart from the birds, I also saw some huge ‘Gators here and a Raccoon running along the track towards me.
Apart from birds, other wildlife seen included:-
American Alligator: wild ones seen at Orlando Wetlands (some huge beasts) and the swamp close to our villa
Black Racer (snake): 1 scuttled across the path at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
Turtles sp: the heads and necks of small freshwater turtles could often be seen sticking out of the water at the same sites as where Alligator was seen.
Bottlenose Dolphin (apparent): a few seen in the lagoon between Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral on 15th and 1 close in Indian River on 28th.
Grey Squirrel: native wild ones seen at Animal Kingdom, Orlando Wetland and Busch Gardens.
Eastern Cottontail (rabbit): 1 seen wild at Animal Kingdom
Raccoon: 1 live and well on the track at Orlando Wetland on 28th. A roadkill seen on another occasion.
White-tailed Deer: 3 seen at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
Wild Hog: a family group of these black non-native animals, including sows, boars and piglets was seen rummaging in woodland west of US 27 on 17th.
Butterflies sp: the combined effect of Florida being sub-tropical and part of America, the butterflies were bound to be bigger (and more colourful) than they are at home. Some absolute dazzlers, although I am not able to put a name to any.
Spiders sp: comments as for butterflies.
Account of Birds Recorded on Trip
This is a summary of all the bird species I recorded between 8 and 29 August 2006 in Florida. Therefore all dates refer to August.
Seen on 2 dates, at Orlando Wetlands only: c4 on 19th and 1 on 28th.
Seen on 2 dates on the Atlantic coast east of Orlando: many on 15th, particularly in the Cocoa Beach area, and 3-5 at Merritt Island on 28th. Those at Busch Gardens are not wild.
Recorded on 9 dates from Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista (Downtown Disney), lagoon between Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral, Sea World, MGM Studios, Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Fort Wilderness, and Islands of Adventure, ie a theme park specialist! Many on the lagoon on 15th and 5-6 at Downtown on 14th, but otherwise maximum of 2 at any location.
Recorded on 13 dates, from Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Merritt Island, Sea World, local swamp, Orlando Wetland, Epcot, Lake Louisa, Magic Kingdom and Fort Wilderness. Slightly larger numbers than Double-crested Cormorant, including 4 at Magic Kingdom on 12th, 4 on Merritt Island on 15th and 15-20 at Orlando Wetland on 19th. Also some great views, including memorably of a female sat on the Lego dragon at Downtown Disney on 14th!
Great Blue Heron
Seen on 8 dates. Good numbers at Orlando Wetlands (2 dates) and on the lagoon between Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral, and a few at Busch Gardens (2 dates). Otherwise, the odd bird at Animal Kingdom and at the local swamp. Some great views.
Little Blue Heron
Also seen on 8 dates. Single birds overhead on Merritt Island on 15th, at our local swamp on 17th and 27th, at Lake Louisa State Park on 21st, Busch Gardens on 24th, Fort Wilderness on 25th and International Drive on 28th. Only numbers from Orlando Wetlands, with 15-20 on 19th and good numbers on 28th.
A similar species to Little Blue, but with a white belly and less common. Apart from 2 at Epcot on 20th, only recorded from Orlando Wetlands, with 7-8 here on 20th and ‘good numbers’ on 28th. Some great views from here.
Common yes, but less than I was expecting, and only seen on 9 dates, less than Snowy Egret. Mainly noted as a common roadside bird from the car, particularly on the east coast. Of the theme parks, only noted at Busch Gardens, where a common, tame table scrap attender.
As mentioned previously, a probable juvenile of this species was seen from the Magic Kingdom ferry on one of the lake’s islands on 22nd. Trouble was, I couldn’t get long or good enough views from the moving ferry, and couldn’t at the time be sure what to look for, so it got through the net.
Recorded on 11 dates. Seen at Typhoon Lagoon water park, Animal Kingdom, in flight over our villa, Sea World, Orlando Wetland, Magic Kingdom, Busch Gardens and Fort Wilderness. Very tame and approachable at Sea World and Busch Gardens; very large numbers at Orlando Wetland.
Great White Egret
Or Great Egret, as the Americans call it. See more often than any other heron with 15 dates. Seen over our villa, at Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Merritt Island, local swamp, Orlando Wetland, Epcot, Lake Louisa, Busch Gardens etc, ie pretty much wherever we went. Where present at the theme parks, always very tame. It’s hard to imagine the same species behaving like that in Europe.
Having seen this species in Florida in 1984 without even trying, I was expecting to see plenty, but didn’t. A single bird was at Orlando Wetland on 19th, and even that was so distant it was in outline only.
Black-crowned Night Heron
A single adult at Busch Gardens on 27th, which sat on the roof of the hippo viewing building in the company of a Snowy Egret and Great Blue Heron.
Not a species I was expecting to record at all, but 1 in flight at Orlando Wetland on 19th, before it dropped out of sight.
Another bonus bird from Orlando Wetland, with 2 seen very well on 28th as they dropped into the reed edge just in front of me.
A theme park speciality. At least 8 birds at Sea World on 16th, all at the sealion pool. Much larger numbers at Busch Gardens on 24th and 27th, in particular around the Edge of Africa pools.
Staff at both complexes assured me that they were not part of their collections, which considering the views and numbers, and the fact that it is a nationally scarce bird in the US, was a great bonus.
Only record was of 2-3 juveniles at Orlando Wetlands on 28th. To be honest, at the time I wasn’t certain if they were this species or juvenile Limpkins, and it took blowing up my photos to make the final decision.
A common species seen on 14 dates, although like Wood Stork, very local nationally in the US. As discussed earlier, common and very tame in many of the theme parks, in particular Magic and Animal Kingdoms, Sea World, Epcot and Busch Gardens.
Elsewhere, seen also at MGM Studios, Lake Buena Vista, Merritt Island, Orlando Wetlands and elsewhere from the car, flying to roost.
One on Lake Buena Vista on 14th.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Another Orlando Wetlands bonus, which wasn’t even on my agenda. A pair with 11 chicks plus a further 5 or so adults seen on 19th and half a dozen seen here in flight on 28th, but as I had my camera this time, views weren’t as good.
Plentiful on the theme park lakes. I couldn’t confidently identify any as the very similar Mottled Duck.
Seen slightly more frequently than the next species with 12 dates, although usually in smaller flocks, and the 2 vultures rarely mixed. It was easily separated from Black Vulture by the longer tail, pale trailing edge and uplifted wings. The flesh-coloured face could only be seen at very close range.
Often up to half a dozen from the villa, and also seen at MGM Studios, Cocoa Beach, Lake Louisa, from roads I4 and 474, Orlando Wetlands and Indian River.
American Black Vulture
Recorded on 11 dates. Only the odd bird seen from the villa, where Turkey Vulture was far commoner.
Elsewhere, flocks seen early morning over Magic Kingdom, large numbers from Animal Kingdom, route 50 / Orlando Wetlands, Merritt Island, Lake Louisa and Fort Wilderness, small number from Sea World, and the odd bird elsewhere. Between them, it was difficult not to see one of the vultures in the air at any time.
Recorded on 11 dates, with between 18-20 birds seen in total. 1 seem catching a fish in Lake Buena Vista.
The only definite Buteo seen, with some great views as often very tame.
Minimum records were 3 (2 adults and juvenile) at Orlando Wetlands on 19th, 1 near villa and 2 at Lake Louisa on 23rd, 1 at Busch Gardens on 24th, 1 at Fort Wilderness and 3 near route 474 on 25th, 1 at the local gator marsh on 27th and at least 3 at Orlando Wetlands again on 28th.
Four records, but never hung around to be admired.
One over US 27 which landed on a telegraph pole on 12th, a juvenile seen at very close quarters as it flew through the Downtown Disney car parks on 14th, another probable juvenile passed the villa on 21st and 1 by Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando on 28th. Basically like an oversized Sparrowhawk.
A single encounter of a party of about a dozen in the woodland at Lake Louisa on 23rd. Fairly shy, not surprisingly.
Two single birds were seen. The first was perched on the handrail to a holiday chalet’s front steps at Lake Louisa on 23rd, and the other on a tree stump at the Natural Preserve off road 474 on 25th.
Wild birds seen on 3 dates, but no good views.
Two flew over our villa on 12th, but by the time I retrieved the bins, they were out of range; 2 seen in flight from the car at the junction of US 27 and route 192 on 17th almost caused me to crash; and up to 7 (4 and later 3) alongside the I4 on 27th, again from the moving car. Also heard but not seen from the Natural Preserve off road 474 on 25th.
Fabulous views of a single bird at Orlando Wetlands on 19th, when I’d typically left the camera behind. A distant bird was also probably seen here on 28th, but from the view I couldn’t completely rule out juvenile Glossy Ibis, which was also seen separately on this occasion.
Seen on 8 dates. Hundreds seen on both trips to Orlando Wetlands, and modest numbers at some of the theme parks with ponds.
American Purple Gallinule
This was the reason I had to work through all the Moorhens at Orlando Wetlands. Eventually, on the second trip on the 28th, I saw one, but it was no classic. It was fairly distant, not a full adult, but lacked Moorhen’s white flank stripe and had a greenish sheen to the wings. A blow up of my photos did however nail it.
Only 2 seen. The first was on one of the small lakes at Epcot on 20th, and the other which was seen well (as I wasn’t having to race off to the next ride!) was at Orlando Wetlands on 28th.
Single record of 3-4 with other waders on the shore of the Indian River east of Titusville on 28th. To be honest, I couldn’t have separated them from Ringed Plover, it was just a case of what was far more likely.
One seen on the ground and a few in the air at the same date and location as Semipalmated Plover.
Just 1 record of several on Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic coast on 15th.
Small numbers with other waders on the shore of the Indian River east of Titusville on 28th. Excellent views.
Comment as for Least Sandpiper. Telling these 2 apart was also difficult. I couldn’t rule out that Western Sandpiper may also have been present.
A single very approachable non-breeding bird was with Sanderlings on Cocoa Beach on 15th.
Between 20-25 juveniles seen very well on the shore of the Indian River east of Titusville on 28th.
A single non-breeding bird was at the local gator swamp on 17th.
Probably just the 1 on Cocoa Beach on 15th, and numbers on the Indian River on 28th. The only wader actually seen on more than 1 date, but only just.
The only common gull species. Present in the hundreds on 24th and 27th at Busch Gardens, close to the Gulf coast, but not seen at all at the other theme parks. All the others seen were at or in the vicinity of the Atlantic coast on the 2 dates there, and where also common. It appeared to be a true ‘sea gull’, and it’s presence tailed off very quickly inland.
Just 2 seen from the Magic Kingdom ferry (on the lake shore) on 22nd.
Seen on the 2 trips to the Atlantic coast, but in very small numbers. 4-5 in the Merritt Island / Cocoa Beach area on 15th and 1 at Merritt Island on 28th.
Sandwich / Gull-billed Tern
A ‘black-billed’ tern which passed Cocoa Beach on 15th could have been either of these, but views not conclusive.
Common / Forster’s Tern
Similarly, off shore birds passed Cocoa Beach on 15th could have been either of these two.
A bit easier this one, and a group of non-breeders or juveniles flew over the beach at Cocoa Beach on 15th. I was too busy with the species ID though to note any of the features of the North American sub-species !
Mainly theme park fodder.
A very common bird noted on 16 dates. Associated mainly with roadside phone lines.
Noted in the Orlando area on 19th and at Busch Gardens on 24th. Unlike the European birds, only there due to human interference.
Unobtrusive, and few seen. Two in the pine wood near the villa on 11th, 2-3 in the Merritt Island area on 15th, 1 at Lake Hammond (near Louisa) and 1 on the drive of a neighbouring villa both on 21st and 1 at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
Excellent views of a bird on the edge of woodland at Orlando Wetlands on 19th. By the time I was starting to appreciate it, it was gone.
Seen on 6 dates, all from or in the vicinity of our villa, and all either early or late in the day in dull light. Usually 1 or 2 birds and maximum of 3 together. Call very distinctive, and it was usually a case of finding out what was the source of the weird noise when they were seen.
Only definite sighting was of 1 over the car park at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
Seen on 2 dates. On 11th, 2 briefly in flight and a female feeding on flowers, all close to our villa. The other was a female seen well at Animal Kingdom on 13th. As no sightings were of males, ID was made far easier by the fact that this species is the only remotely likely one to be seen in mid-Florida in August, cop out I know!
Seen on 3 occasions, all of singles:- on wires at Merritt Island on 15th, over Magic Kingdom car park on 22nd and in a bush at Orlando Wetlands on 28th.
No Ivory Bills, but the next best thing! Excellent views of 1 bird perched in a small tree by Orlando Wetlands visitor centre on 19th, and in flight. It shared the tree with the next species.
Seen on 6 dates, and the commonest woodpecker. Very vocal which assisted detection. None until 17th however, with probably 3 along a track off route 474. Later records were c4 at Orlando Wetlands on 19th, c4 at Lake Louisa on 21st, 1 around 1 mile south of the villa and 5-6 again at Lake Louisa on 23rd, 1 at Fort Wilderness and 3 at the Natural Preserve off 474 on 25th and 1 over State Highway 50 on 28th.
Only sighting was of a family group of around 4 at the Natural Preserve off 474 on 25th.
One was possibly seen at Lake Louisa on 23rd, but unless size can be judged, very difficult to tell from the smaller Downy Woodpecker.
Another quite common pecker, with 6 dates. Singles in woodland behind the local swamp and at Fort Wilderness on 14th, 1 at Merritt Island on 15th, 1 at Sea World on 16th, 1 off the 474 north of the villa on 17th, at least 2 at Lake Louisa on 21st and 1 just north of the villa and c4 again at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
I was expecting this to be a common roadside bird, and it wasn’t. Only positive sighting was of 1 on the edge of the woodland adjacent the local gator marsh on 27th.
Great Crested Flycatcher
Seen within metres of the previous species, but 2 weeks earlier with 1 bird on 14th. It also shared a tree with my first Downy Woodpecker. Unlike that species however, records ended there.
Three juveniles were probably seen at MGM Studios on 10th, but as it was dusk and binoculars were packed away, I couldn’t be certain. Two definite sightings, being of a female or juvenile near the villa on 14th and a male north of route 474 on 17th.
A common bird (like back home), usually seen over water.
A very common bird, which perhaps the fact that only noted on 10 dates doesn’t do justice to. Sometimes in very large numbers however. Visually indistinguishable to me to our own Carrion Crow.
Very difficult to tell from the last species, although apparently smaller. I can say with confidence that, due mainly to the high-pitched call, at least 1 was seen at Orlando Wetlands on 19th and 1 was in Busch Gardens car park on 24th. This is the bare minimum and others were probably also seen.
Seen on 4 dates. On 11th, several were in the locality of the villa and 1-2 at Typhoon Lagoon; 1 again near the villa on 14th; at Lake Louisa, 2 on 21st and 1 on 23rd.
Flocks noted on a couple of dates, although I didn’t go out of the way for this one.
Only seen on 23rd, when 3-4 were seen well in woodland at Lake Louisa, flocking with Tufted Titmouse. Reminiscent of Europe’s Sombre Tit, ie dull looking.
Recorded on 3 dates. At Lake Louisa, seen well with 2 on 21st and many on 23rd. Elsewhere, 1-2 at the Natural Preserve off road 474 on 25th. Larger than I was expecting (about Chaffinch size), although the call was not dissimilar to Blue Tit. Most notable feature was not so much the tuft as the big black eye.
The extremely loud (for it’s size) song was heard quite frequently, although the only ones actual seen were singles on Merritt Island on 15th (quite good views), off route 474 on 17th (glimpsed) and Orlando Wetlands on 28th (good views). Larger than ‘our’ wren, and darker, if anything more reminiscent of Cetti’s Warbler.
Very common throughout, although not in flocks like Grackles. Recorded on 15 dates.
Just as I arrived at Orlando Wetlands on 19th, a blackbird-sized chestnut brown bird was seen in flight and to land in a hedgerow. Unfortunately, as I stepped out of my air conditioned car, the bins immediately steamed up, and re-steamed as fast as I could clear them. This bird was not going to wait for this to be sorted, and was off. It was most likely Brown Thrasher, but not confirmed; the only other possibility would have been Wood Thrush.
Superb view of 2 between the villa and gator swamp on 14th, and 1 also at Lake Louisa on 23rd. A subtly beautiful bird.
Superficially similar to Northern Mockingbird, although far less numerous. Records were 1 from the villa on 9th, 3-4 in this area on 11th, singles near the local swamp on 17th and 27th and 1 in the east on 28th.
Single singing birds were picked out in wooded areas with dense undergrowth at Orlando Wetlands on 19th and 28th. In spite of the mostly obscured views, most of the salient features, apart from the pale irises were noted. This may point to them being immature birds.
One seen very briefly high in the trees at Lake Louisa on 23rd. As soon as I was on it, it was gone.
Black and White Warbler
A male was seen briefly but well on a tree trunk at Lake Louisa on 21st. Another was probably glimpsed here on 23rd, but a lot was going on at the time.
Two were seen together well but again briefly in poolside vegetation on Merritt Island on 15th.
Single males seen very well at Lake Louisa on 23rd and at the Natural Preserve Forest south of route 474 on 25th.
A male was at Fort Wilderness on 14th with 2 males well at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
A male was seen, but views weren’t great, high in a pine at Fort Wilderness on 14th. A female or juvenile was also seen on Merritt Island on 15th.
A very attractive warbler seen on more dates than any other. Single males were on Merritt Island on 15th, at Lake Louisa on 21st, at the Natural Preserve Forest on 25th and at the local gator marsh on 27th (great views).
An unexpected surprise. One seen very well at the local gator marsh on 27th, sharing a small tree with the last of the above Prairie Warblers.
Abundant in the theme parks where obviously touting for scraps, but not really noted elsewhere.
At least 4 were seen in the grassland area at Lake Louisa on 23rd, with good views of 2 of them. The rasping contact call heard ruled out Western Meadowlark, however unlikely that may be in Florida !
Two localities, and 4 dates. At Orlando Wetlands, fair numbers on 19th and several on 28th. At Lake Louisa, a flock seen on both 21st and 23rd. When females were seen in isolation, they looked quite obscure, but the males were very distinct, with their red shoulder patches looking like they were tagged onto the black body.
A very common bird seen on at least 13 dates. Although not noted until 3 days into the holiday, subsequently recorded at Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Cocoa Beach, Sea World, Orlando Wetlands (abundant here), Epcot, Busch Gardens, Islands of Adventure, elsewhere and in overhead flock 100s strong at dawn on at least 1 occasion. Very bold at the theme parks. Male easily told from Common Grackle due to larger size, longer and wider tail and dark eye, and female in being larger and far more differentiated from the male than Common Grackle.
Also very common and bold, and recorded on around 15 dates. Initially seemed to be commoner than Boat-tailed, but by the end of the holiday, I’d probably seen more of the latter. Places seen included local Walmart car park, MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, east coast, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Islands of Adventure, and pretty much throughout.
Commonly seen (12 dates), in modest numbers. Recorded in the villa area, Animal Kingdom, Merritt Island, Universal Studios, Orlando Wetlands, Lake Louisa, Busch Gardens and elsewhere. Probably around 30 birds seen altogether.
Just the one, a singing male from a bush in the open grassland area at Lake Louisa on 23rd.
Around 5 birds seen very well on the edge of a pine wood close to the villa on 11th only.
You can’t have everything. Didn’t see any owls – Great Horned or Burrowing would have been very nice. My raptor list was a bit short – it was disappointing not to get Swallow-tailed Kite, and to not see Bald Eagle was inexcusable. Even my brother and the non-birding guy at work, neither who were trying, claimed to have seen this bird near the Kennedy Space Centre, but I didn’t go there of course. If I hadn’t failed miserably to get to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I should have got Black Skimmer and Black-necked Stilt to name a couple, and Florida Scrub Jay would have been a dead cert. Did pretty well with the passerines, although no Nuthatches or Yellow-breasted Chat. The only expected warbler missed was Common Yellowthroat.
Taking into account the number of dates and localities seen and the shear number of birds, the commonest species were:-
Turkey Vulture American Black Vulture Great White Egret Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret White Ibis Moorhen Laughing Gull
Mourning Dove Barn Swallow American Crow Northern Mockingbird
House Sparrow Boat-tailed Grackle Common Grackle
If you chose to holiday in Florida purely to maximise the bird watching potential and there were no constraints, you would not go there in August, you would probably not base yourself in the Orlando area, and if you did, you would at least be very selective about the theme parks visited, and you would make damn sure that you visited both coasts, and more than twice!
But in reality, there are always other considerations, particularly if you are a family man like myself, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have gone to Florida at all in 2006 if it wasn’t to take the kids to Disney and the rest. I have promised them, and myself, that I will do it again one more time in around 5 years time (2011-ish), when they are still young enough to appreciate that sort of holiday, and if I can afford to.
It spite of the ‘adversity’, I still saw between 90 and 95 species of which around 40 were lifers. Both these totals were about twice what I’d dared hoped. So instead of bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t booked the Everglades and Keys in April instead and recorded 200 odd species, I was more than happy with my lot, and was able to thoroughly enjoy the holiday for what it was, knowing that the birding chances I’d had were good as well.