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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Orlando - Florida (8th-22nd April 1995),

John Girdley

What follows is not a trip report as such,  but more a birders diary of  how to spend no less than eleven days around the Disney Resorts and yet still see almost a hundred species of birds with no prior knowledge of where to go!

My family decided that that we had to take the kids to Florida before they were too old to appreciate it!  While they studied the tourist guides, I was busy mugging up on American birds from my trusty National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

I considered, that as everything would be new to me, that chasing after specific species on a first trip would be futile.  Friends had told me that birds would be everywhere.  I also knew about Merrit Island and its close proximity to the Kennedy Space Centre and I would certainly be visiting there.

Day 1 (The airport)

Arrive at Orlando International Airport after long nine hour flight.  Glimpse unknown vulture species out of plane window. Passport control seems interminable.   Courtesy bus takes us to the car hire firm.  More  frustrating glimpses of distant birds.  Unknown duck, unknown Pigeon etc.  A couple of first summer Ring-billed Gulls grace the parking lot, but still not a "tick"  as I've seen several in the UK.  Urgently needed "tick" arrives in the shape of a small flock of Grackles.  Light fading fast. Arrive at Ho-Jo Lodge,  add Starling and House Sparrow by the light of a Pizza-Hut.  ( USA List = 4!)  Poor.

Day 2 (Motel + International Drive + Lake Tibet Butler)

Up at first light with no idea what to expect.  Mourning Dove and Mockingbird gave meaning to dimly remembered lines from Bob Dylan songs.  Boat-tailed Grackles were everywhere.  American Crow was less exciting.  Overflying Egrets and a Woodpecker remained unidentified.

The welcome meeting beckoned.  (we had to do this for the cheap discount tickets to Disney.)  [Disney Technical Note:  The four day Disney Super pass gives you seven free days in the minor Parks, worth about 100.00 per day for a family of four, but only if taken on consecutive days after first use of the ticketIt would be during this period that I would have to get most of my birding done.

The parking lot had a large mixed hirundine flock for me to sort out.   ("No time" I was told, "look on the way out!")   On the way out they were gone!   This turned out to be the only such flock I saw in two weeks.   The only swallow that I managed to see after this was a solitary Barn Swallow!    Moral:  never turn your back on a tick!

Shopping and a drive toward the Disney resorts followed.  (Just so that we could   find the way tomorrow!)  By lucky chance we passed a sign saying Lake Tibet-Butler Nature Reserve.  In I went.  "Where are you going came the chorus from the car"   The friendly warden pointed out a distant Bald Eagle nest with two sitting young.  "OK we can go now!" (USA list = 10)    I had expected more.

Day 3 (Epcot Centre + Dr Phillips area.)

Added Osprey, Loggerhead Shrike and Mallard in the Motel parking lot.

Activate the Disney ticket.  First of the big parks.  The Epcot Centre appeals the most.  A Pied-billed Grebe sits in the middle of the big lagoon.  Two White Ibis stalk the picnic tables.  Great Egret, Blue Jay, Fish Crow an unspeciated Blackbird and, less interestingly, a Moorhen went on the list.  (The rides were good too!)

On the way back we passed a recent area of felling, just south of the town of Dr. Phillips, on the Apopka Vineland Road. It reminded me of an East-Anglian Heathland.   I decided to return in the evening. (The family played with the multi-channel TV, a novelty at the time.)

Real birding at last!  (And only five minute from the Motel.)  A Killdeer flies up as I leave the car, White Ibis overflies, two Eastern Bluebirds, two Northern Bobwhites,  Common Yellow Throat,  two Northern Cardinals,  Palm Warbler   and a couple of Downy Woodpeckers!  I will return.  (USA list = 28)   Getting better.

Day 4 (Typhoon Lagoon + Dr Phillips area again.)

Typhoon Lagoon: hours of floating around on big rubber rings, very relaxing.  The big wave pool is rather less so!  Great fun for the kids but no new birds.

I find time for another late evening visit to Dr. Phillips.  I'm delighted to find that a whole new set of birds seem to have moved in!  A Red-tailed Hawk overflies, three Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Carolina Wren, four Rufous-sided Towhees, a Grey Cat Bird mews at me from a bush and as dusk falls Whip-poor-wills start to call but take me an age to find!  (USA list = 34)  Still growing.

Day 5 (Discovery Island)

Discovery Island is a little known gem in the Disney Properties.  An Island in the middle of a lake, approachable only after a coach and boat ride, and with few visitors in comparison to the big parks.  The Island is a small zoo built among the largest Heronry that I have ever seen.

From the boat, Ospreys were seen fishing the lake, Black Vultures circled the island, Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and American Coots all hinted at goodies to come.

Birds on the island included (and these are conservative estimates) at least two hundred each of White Ibis and Cattle Egret, fifty each of Great Egret and Snowy Egret, at least ten Little Blue Heron and smaller numbers of  Tricolored Heron.  A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers also performed.

This wasn't exciting enough for the kids but I loved it.  We later discovered that it was possible to ride the inter- park transportation system (boats and monorail) all day without charge.  (USA list = 43)  Things are looking up.

Day 6 (Kennedy Space Centre + Merrit Island)

Time for a break from Disney.  Easy to persuade the family that a trip to the Kennedy Space Centre is a must.  I don't mention that Merrit Island is next door!

The journey is easy, about an hour.  A flock of fifty Black Simmers skim the car park.  Wow! I didn't think they would be that easy.  The space-race fascinated me as a child.  The day passed quickly.

A coach ride out to the launch pads area added a large flock of Glossy Ibis, ten Turkey Vultures, three Great Blue Herons and numerous Egrets, Herons and Gulls.  Alligator and Manatee were both ticks!

Time to go back to the Motel.  "Accidentally" take wrong turn and end up on Merrit Island.  By "pure chance" we reach the Black Point Wildlife Drive.  "Might as well take a look now we're here!"   Very quickly add Reddish Egret, Mottled Duck, Willet,  Lesser Yellow Legs and Red-Winged Blackbird to the list.  Too many other birds to mention.

Placate the kids with promise of a McDonalds.  I amuse myself throwing greasy bread to a Laughing Gull and vow to return. Wood Stork from car window on way home.   (USA list = 55)  Good day.

Day 7 (Wikeva Springs + River Country)

Persuaded the family that they should have a lie in.  I got up, pre-dawn, and headed for Wikeva Springs State Park which is on the north west edge of Orlando City.   (I had read about Wikeva Springs in the "peace and quiet" chapter of my essential guide to Orlando. )

I was on a strict timetable here and things got off to a quiet start.  Blue Grey Gnatcatcher and an overflying Chimney Swift were my first new birds.  Then a small wave of mixed warblers flew through and ticks came rapidly.  Northern Parula, Black and White Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager, White-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Tufted Titmouse and others.

I returned for a late breakfast with the family and then headed off to River Country.   A nice swimming hole near to Discovery Island but no new birds.  (USA list = 64)  A useful morning.

Day 8 (Blizzard Beach)

I was under family orders today.  Anyway, I look a prat in swimming trunks and binoculars.  Vultures circled overhead but there was nothing new.  (USA list = 64)  Sun tan coming along nicely.

Day 9 (Merrit Island)

The family enjoyed Blizzard beach so much that they want to go again!  I get shore leave and head off for a full day at Merrit Island.

Even the drive was exciting, an Anhinga dried its wings in a roadside pool, a Pileated Woodpecker nearly crashed into the windscreen of my car and a solitary Sandhill Crane walked by the side of the freeway.

Merrit Island lived up to all my expectations,  new birds included American Avocet, American Golden Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper (these last two took an age to sort out), Sora Rail and Green-backed Heron.

See several birds that are very familiar from back home, Red-breasted Merganser, Knot, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Shoveller, Sanderling and a small flock of north-bound Gannets.

Others like Blue-winged Teal and American Wigeon I have seen as rare vagrants in the UK.

I met my first American Birdwatcher by a roadside pool whilst looking at a large mixed flock of Yellowlegs and some Roseate Spoonbills.  He was from New York and was making his forth trip to Florida.  Roseate Spoonbill was a new bird for him and yet, here was I, taking them for granted.  I asked if it was worth driving to the north end of Playalinda Beach.  "No, only nudies up there" came the somewhat cryptic reply.  I went anyway, and added both Royal Tern and "nudies" to my list!

Other new birds were Northern (Yellow Shafted ) Flicker, Eastern Kingbird, a Scrub Jay (that I nearly ran over) and another bird from a Bob Dylan song line, Eastern Meadowlark. (USA list = 87)  Great Day.

Day 10 (Lake Tibet-Butler +Florida Mall +Canaveral National Seashore)

An early start saw me at Lake Tibet Butler.  The gates were locked but I squeezed through a gap in the fence.  Disturbed a Great Horned Owl, what a size!  It settled in a distant tree, perfectly camouflaged, looking for all the world like a broken off branch.  A Killdeer, Common Yellow Throat and several Woodpeckers, among others, all added to the fun.

The family demanded a shopping trip and the Florida Mall was visited.  The usual routine seems to be, first buy a suitcase and then fill it.  Consumer electronics were particularly cheap, along with c.d.'s and optical equipment.  I bought a new pair of binoculars at approximately half the UK price.

Decided to spend the rest of the day on the beach, prior to our forthcoming big park days.  The beach I chose took me once again through the Merrit Island Reserve.   "Haven't we been here before?",  "No, all these swamps look the same!"  A solitary American White Pelican graced a roadside pool.  I thought that they had all left for northern latitudes by now.  (USA list = 90)   List growing slowly now.

Days 11 and 12 (Magic Kingdom + M.G.M Studios)

Two fourteen hour days in the theme parks!  Exhausting but great fun. (USA list = 90) Stagnation.

Day 13 (Merrit Island again)

Family want to go to Universal Studios.  Better still, I'm excused for another birding day.  Wish that I had done more research on good birding sites.  Merrit Island is still the best that I've visited and so I go there again.

Quickly add Savannah Sparrow to the list but then things get more difficult.   Another eight White Pelicans, several Royal Terns, a couple of Reddish Egrets and in short, hundreds of all the birds that I have seen before.  Conclude that I must have been very thorough in my coverage on my previous visits. (USA list = 93)  Hard going.

Day 14 (Epcot + Magic Kingdom)

One day of holiday left, one day left on the Super Pass, decide to split it between the Epcot Centre and the Magic Kingdom.  Arrive back at Motel at one in the morning. (USA list = 93) New birds? No chance!

Day 15 (Dr. Phillips + back to the airport.)

I have time for one last dawn visit to the Dr. Phillips area.  I've always seen some good birds here.  House Wren is new, Prairie Warbler, Blue Jay, Bobwhites, Towhees and others all make for a worthwhile hour. (USA list = 94)  I'm happy.

What did I miss?

Two or three species of Hirundines on my first day plus several high flying individuals all purposely heading  north.  An unknown Blackbird that may have been Brewers at the Epcot Centre.  A distant small tern that may have been Forster's at Merrit Island.  An Empidonax Flycatcher at Dr. Phillips that was probably Acadian and one or two yellow headed/faced Warblers at Wikeva Springs that could have been any one of ten things!   Yes, I did manage to see one hundred species, I just didn't manage to identify them all! 

Discounted Books

Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Geographic

Birdfinder : A Birder's Guide to Planning North American Trips (Aba Birdfinding Guide)
Jerry A. Cooper

The Birds of Florida (Orlando Area) 8-28th April'95

Species seen Comments

Pied-billed Grebe

One on Epcot Centre Lagoon, several at Merrit Island.

Northern Gannet

One, northbound Canaveral National Seashore.

American White Pelican

1+8 Merrit Island. Presumably late departing individuals.

Brown Pelican

Numerous, Merrit Island and Disney Properties.

Anhinga

Several seen but in small no's. Widely dispersed.

Double Crested Cormorant

3 at Discovery Island, about 20 on Merrit Island.

Green-backed Heron

1 at Epcot Centre, 2 Merrit Island.

Tricolored Heron

2 in Disney Properties, 30 on Merrit Island

Little Blue Heron

10 Discovery Island + white immature Disney Properties.

Reddish Egret

2 Merrit Island.

Cattle Egret

200+ Discovery Island, numerous on Merrit Island.

Snowy Egret

Common, 50+ Discovery Island, many at Merrit Island.

Great White Egret

50+ Discovery Island, common at Merrit Island, even seen overflying International Drive.

Great Blue Heron

3 at Kennedy Space Centre, 4 Merrit Island and 2 Disney Properties.

Wood Stork

3 Merrit Island area.

Glossy Ibis

50+ Kennedy Space Centre, common on Merrit Island.

White Ibis

Fairly common everywhere.  Walked on the Picnic tables at Epcot.

Roseate Spoonbill

15 at Merrit Island.

American Wigeon

10 at Merrit Island.  Probably lingering winter visitors.

Mallard

Fairly common.

Mottled Duck

3 at Merrit Island.

(Northern) Shoveler

2 at Merrit Island. Assumed to be lingering winter birds.

Blue-winged Teal

50+ at Merrit Island. Again, late wintering birds.

Red-breasted Merganser

1 at Merrit Island. Wintering species.

Turkey Vulture

Quite common, 10 at Kennedy Space Centre and plenty in the Merrit Island area.

Black Vulture

Common resident. At Discovery Island, at least 10 very confiding birds. Lots around Merrit Island.

Bald Eagle

Nest with young at Lake Tibet Butler Nature Reserve..  Nest pointed out from tour bus at Kennedy Space Centre.

Red-tailed Hawk

One soaring over Dr. Phillips.

Osprey

Common, including at least 6 fishing off Discovery Island  Also seen overflying International Drive.

Northern Bobwhite

2 at Dr. Phillips, 1 at Wikeva Springs, 2 on the Disney Properties.

Sora

2 at Merrit Island.

Moorhen

Common.

American Coot

10 at Discovery Island, 50 at Kennedy Space Centre, 10 Merrit Island.

Sandhill Crane

One seen on a roadside verge between Orlando and the Kennedy Space Centre.

Black-necked Stilt

Several on Merrit Island.

American Avocet

10 on Merrit Island. Small wintering flock.

Killdeer

Individuals seen at Dr. Phillips and Lake Tibet Butler Nature Reserve..

American Golden Plover

5 at Merrit Island.  Migrants?

Grey Plover

5 at Merrit Island, wintering birds.

Knot

1 at Merrit Island.

Sanderling

30 at the Canaveral National Seashore.

Least Sandpiper

20 at Merrit Island, wintering birds.

Dunlin

Common on the beach at Canaveral National Seashore.

Short-billed Dowitcher

30 at Merrit Island, thought to be of the griseus sub-species.

Willet

About 30, widespread on Merrit Island and the Canaveral National Seashore.

Greater Yellowlegs

Flocks of 10+ on Merrit Island.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Common, flocks of 100+ on Merrit Island.

(Ruddy)Turnstone

Widespread along the Canaveral National Seashore.

Laughing Gull

Several around Discovery Island.  Easily seen around Merrit Island. Eats chips (fries) outside McDonalds.  Resident.

Ring-billed Gull

This is the commonest Gull in town, lots on International Drive.  Winter visitor.

Royal Tern

5 seen off the Canaveral National Seashore.

Black Skimmer

50+ over the Kennedy Space Centre car park,  10 on Merrit Island.

Rock Dove

Widespread in Orlando.

Mourning Dove

Seen around the Motel on International Drive. Common.

Great Horned Owl

One seen at Lake Tibet Butler Nature Reserve.  Resident.

Whip-poor-will

Many calling and two seen at Dr. Phillips.  Wintering birds.

Chimney Swift

One heading north over Wikeva Springs.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

3 at Dr. Phillips and 4 at Wikeva Springs.  Common resident?

Northern Flicker (Yellow Shafted)

2 on Merrit Island.

Downy Woodpecker

2 at Dr. Phillips, 1 at Wikeva Springs and 4 at Lake Tibet Butler Nature Reserve..

Hairy Woodpecker

2 on Discovery Island.

Pileated Woodpecker

One flew in front of the car near to Lake Tibet Butler Nature Reserve..

Eastern Kingbird

2 displaying on Merrit Island. Early spring visitor.

Great Crested Flycatcher

One at Wikeva Springs and one on the Disney Properties. Spring Migrant.

(Barn) Swallow

One flew north along the Canaveral National Seashore.

House Wren

One at Dr. Phillips.  Winter visitor.

Carolina Wren

Singing males at Dr. Phillips and Wikeva Springs.  Resident.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher

Small no's at Wikeva Springs.  Resident.

Eastern Bluebird

One at Dr. Phillips.  Resident.

Tufted Titmouse

One at Wikeva Springs.  Resident.

Loggerhead Shrike

A few seen including one in the Motel car park. Resident.

Grey Catbird

Seen in most places with plenty of cover, but always very skulking. Wintering birds?

Northern Mockingbird

Common on International Drive.  Resident.

Scrub Jay

Two on Merrit Island, one of which I nearly ran over!

Blue Jay

Several seen, especially on the Disney Properties. Resident.

American Crow

Common, including on International Drive.

Fish Crow

Small no's in the Disney Properties.
Starling Common.

House Sparrow

Common around town.

White-eyed Vireo

One at Wikeva Springs.  Resident.

Northern Parula

One at Wikeva Springs and one on the Disney Properties.  Migrants?

Black-and-white Warbler

One at Wikeva Springs.  Winter bird?

Prairie Warbler

One at Dr. Phillips and one at Wikeva Springs.  Winter bird or resident?

Palm Warbler

One at Dr. Phillips.  Winter bird.

Common Yellowthroat

One at Dr. Phillips and one near Lake Tibet Butler Nature Reserve.  Resident.

Northern Cardinal

Common.

Summer Tanager

Several at Wikeva Springs.  Summer visitor.

Rufous-sided Towhee

Several at Dr. Phillips. Resident.

Savannah Sparrow

One on Merrit Island. Wintering bird.

Eastern Meadowlark

Several at Merrit Island.  Resident.

Red-winged Blackbird

Common on Merrit Island.  Already with young.

Common Grackle

Small flock by Orlando Airport.

Boat-tailed Grackle

Numerous in most habitats.  Resident.

 

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