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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Birding the Orlando area 17th July – 6th August 2012,
A family holiday to Orlando in mid-summer provided a surprisingly good bird list.
July/August is probably the worst possible time from a birding point of view to visit central Florida. It is hot and humid with afternoons often washed out with thunderstorms. However school holidays provided no choice of timing so I spent 17 July – 6 August staying with my family in a rented house in a pleasant estate in the Four Corners neighborhood of Orlando. I had a gas-guzzling Dodge grand caravan 7-seater hired from Alamo with the cheap all-in rental arranged via rentalcars.com, it came with a GPS so all I had to do was type in the full address of the site as in Pranty (see below) and it directed me straight there. I also bought the excellent Rand-McNally road map of central/eastern Florida.
There are two main publications on birding in Florida:
Birding Florida by Brian Rapoza, a Falcon Guide and
A Birder’s Guide to Florida by Bill Pranty, Fifth Edition, 2005, ABA/Lane Birdfinding Guide series
I read the former before I left and bought the latter at the excellent visitor’s centre at Merritt Island. The two books cover much the same sites, Rapoza’s book is rather verbose and lacks the large-scale maps so prevalent in the Pranty Guide. If you only want to buy one guide get the Pranty.
I have no wish to repeat information readily found in the two books I just want to focus on those sites that delivered key species. If I was on a serious birding trip (obviously not in mid-summer) all of central Florida can be well covered in four full days, allowing two days for the Everglades and another three for the keys plus dry Tortugas, a 10 day trip should be enough for a Florida clean-up. I visited southern Florida very briefly 25 years ago but did manage to see key species such as white-crowned pigeon. This holiday was my 12th trip to North America (usually business with some birding) so I had seen a lot of eastern species but central Florida provided a great opportunity to fill in some obvious gaps.
For this trip I had a clear target list of 20 species and was focused on using early mornings before family outings to the Orlando tourist traps. As it turned out I had several full days to go birding and finished the holiday with a respectable 110 trip list including 17 world ticks. See the pdf file for the complete bird list.
Notes on sites visited.
Specific long-leaf pine and scrub palmetto sites
Disney Wilderness Preserve. Only open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday so impossible to bird here at dawn and dusk. I found this an excellent site for Eastern Bluebird, it was also the only site where I had brown-headed nuthatch and red-cockaded woodpecker. The RCWs were introduced a few years ago (see the web for details) and so do not feature in any of the Florida site guides. If you ask nicely and they are not burning, you may be allowed to take the track north into the RCW area. I did this and eventually got excellent views of at least two RCWs
Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. A key site, Pranty provides all the details you need however in August 2012 two things were different:
a) Williams road running north east from SR 523 was gated and closed with a no access sign, I have no idea how to gain access to the main RCW areas north of the Turnpike.
b) They were rebuilding a bridge on road 16 so that there was no access from the north down to the Prairie Lakes unit and the grasshopper sparrow area, I had to take a very long detour and approach on road 10 up from SR60.
I spent 2 mornings and an evening on the camp ground side; Bobwhite and Bachman’s sparrow were fairly easy but not a sniff of RCW, nighthawk were common here at dusk.
The grasshopper sparrow area marked in Pranty was reliable; I had a singing male just north of road 9, about 400m east of its junction with road 10. The road off to the prairie lakes unit was too rough for my low-slung minivan. The road 10 area was also notable for eastern meadowlark and common yellowthroat.
More general non-water sites.
Scrub Jay trail, Merritt Island NWR. My first site of the trip, after getting gen from the visitor centre. May be easier places to see Florida Scrub Jay but after having youngsters land on my head I didn’t bother looking for them anywhere else.
Lake Louisa State Park. A well-kept park off US 27. Yellow-throated warbler found easily here and nighthawk common at dusk.
Oak hammock trail, Merritt Island NWR. Pileated woodpecker and white-eyed vireo easy here. Mosquitoes a nuisance in all the hammocks, particularly this one; either change out of shorts or use lots of repellent.
Sunset Ranch interpretive trail, this new trail runs from SR 523 down to Lake Marian. I had wild turkey, yellow-throated, prairie and black-and-white warbler here. Also a large rat snake showing the strong orange coloration of the endemic Florida race.
Key fresh-water sites
The Rapoza guide seems to give the same target list of water birds for numerous sites, I visited a few.
Orlando Wetlands Park. The site for black-bellied whistling duck, common and easy to see. Also the only place where I saw purple gallinule.
Brinson Park. A brief evening visit produced ridiculously tame Limpkin and a pair of mottled duck.
East Lake Tohopekaliga. A must-visit site. I found the car park on the East Lakeshore Boulevard at the top of Massachusetts Avenue, St. Cloud. I recommend the long walk along the top of the bund running west from the car park. Key species here is Snail Kite; I had a male on every visit. It is also good for Limpkin with lots of easy-to-approach birds near the CP, those further away were more wary. Lots of close herons, egrets and wood stork, I found a skulking family of mottled duck. I was hoping for Least Bittern in the evening but no luck. I found no reference to the name Kaliga Park used by Pranty, I assume the current CP is the site. Muscovy duck was easy by the pond on the landward side of the bund. I suggest picking the blackest-looking bird and ticking that, difficult to get in the proper wild state in central America, the population in Florida is officially countable but just horribly plastic.
Viera wetlands. Very easy to find, drive west from Exit 191 on Interstate 95, go straight across the roundabout, pass Viera hospital on your left and keep going less than two miles to the entrance to the preserve, easy birding driving around on bunds. This is the key site for Mottled duck; numerous and easy to see. Also the best views of alligator here. All the usual herons, egrets, ibis and wood stork in good numbers.
On the other side of the road I found the entrance to Duda farm/ponds, however it is locked at 7pm and I arrived at 5 minutes to 7 so didn’t check it out.
Lake Marian A brief stop at the lakeshore by the jetties and at Fred’s Fish Camp produced tame Limpkin and wood stork.
Black Point wildlife drive, Merritt Island NWR. I drove this circuit several times during the trip and saw practically nothing, however the cat-tail area near the toilet block at marker 9 is a reliable site for Least Bittern but not when I was there.
Peacock’s Pocket road drive, Merritt Island NWR. I drove round here during an evening thunderstorm and saw little, Great White Heron can be seen here.
Key Coastal sites
Playalinda beach, Merritt Island NWR, many car parks to choose from, lovely beach, subject to much disturbance but in the late afternoon I had great views of resting Royal and Sandwich tern along with Willet and sanderling and lots of Laughing gull.
Bio Lab road, Merritt Island NWR. On 18th July I drove along this track, it follows the shoreline of Mosquito lagoon and gave fantastic close views of many wader species, most birds were returning adults and were still carrying strong breeding colours. On a return visit two weeks later the tide condition was similar but hardly any waders.
Fort De Soto Park, South of St Petersburg. This was my only trip to the Gulf coast, I managed to sneak away from Busch Gardens, Tampa for a few hours, it is about 45 minutes drive from Busch Gardens and well worth the effort. The key species for me was Wilsons Plover, very easy at East Beach.
Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island NWR. The VAB optional tour available summer 2012 gave access close to SLC 39 on the Atlantic coast and halfway across Banana river towards the airforce base. Birds seemed tamer than usual and you may find something unusual, definitely worth doing for the location alone.
In summary if you are a birder facing a family fortnight in Orlando in high summer, do not despair, if you can get away for a few hours, particularly early morning, then you should be able to see most of the central Florida specialties. Good luck.
Michael Grunwell, Al Khor, State of Qatar