Winter Florida Birding Workshop Jan 26—31, 2015

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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Our VENT birding workshops offer a slightly different style of tour, one where most of the emphasis is on learning about bird identification, behavior, and ecology, rather than building a large species list. On our first Winter Florida Birding Workshop, we visited several bird-rich sites in Central Florida where we had exposure to large numbers of waterfowl, herons, shorebirds, and gulls, as well as a good variety of songbirds. With pleasant weather and a cheery group, we had a delightful winter getaway and learned a lot along the way.

Florida Scrub-Jay

Florida Scrub-Jay— Photo: Michael O’Brien

We began north of Orlando, at Blue Spring State Park. In cooler weather, the hot springs here attract large numbers of West Indian Manatees, and we were delighted to get close views of many of these magnificent animals. The hardwood forest here, dominated by live oaks festooned with Spanish Moss and Resurrection Fern, was active with woodpeckers, warblers, and other songbirds, and we had particularly memorable studies of a Blue-headed Vireo as it foraged overhead. Moving on to Titusville, our next stop was Blue Heron Wetlands, a water reclamation facility right on the edge of town. This fabulous wetland was alive with birds, including fine views of American Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and Crested Caracara. This was also our first chance to focus in on the different foraging habits of several heron species, and learn shape and behavioral tricks for distinguishing distant coots and gallinules. After an afternoon break at the hotel, we did a short presentation before dinner, focusing on using “macro field marks” to identify birds.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Based in Titusville, we were very close to the famed Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and our second full day was spent mostly in this rich area. A stop at Parrish Park, on the causeway out to Merritt Island, gave us an excellent opportunity to study a flock of Lesser Scaup and sort through different ages of Ring-billed Gull. Then we moved on to the Merritt Island Visitor’s Center where bird feeders kept us captivated for quite a while. At least six Painted Buntings, both males and females, were the main attraction. As we carefully described the plumage pattern of the multicolored males, we realized that there were more colors on that bird than one might surmise on casual inspection. Out at Black Point Drive, we enjoyed an abundance of ducks and herons, a stealthy Clapper Rail, and a nice mixed flock of shorebirds that was the focus of a lengthy ID discussion. Back at the hotel, today’s pre-dinner program focused on bird topography, and how the various feather groups look different on different families of birds.

Limpkin

Limpkin— Photo: Michael O’Brien

On our third day in the field, we went back to Merritt Island to soak in more of the abundant waterbirds. In this case, a feeding frenzy of herons stole the show—we watched hundreds of birds flying in from all around as some sort of feeding opportunity developed. We enjoyed watching the different feeding styles of each species, and also sorting out different recognizable age groups, including three distinct age classes of Roseate Spoonbill. It was particularly memorable watching two Reddish Egrets perform their distinctively animated feeding style. In the afternoon, we headed up to Daytona Beach to witness the legendary gull fly-in, one of the most impressive avian spectacles in all of North America. Every afternoon, tens of thousands of gulls gather on the shores of Daytona Beach before heading offshore to roost. It’s hard to imagine a better classroom for studying the identification and aging of gulls, and we took advantage of this opportunity, and also enjoyed watching plunge-diving Northern Gannets just offshore.

On our final day in the field, we began at Viera Wetlands, another water reclamation facility, famous for its large concentrations of waterbirds, including numerous Limpkins. Even though late January is the dead of winter throughout much of the U.S., breeding activity in Florida is really picking up this time of year, and we we were especially struck by the bright breeding condition of several species at Viera—the Anhinga’s turquoise orbital ring and emerald lores were amazing! After Viera, we took a short walk at nearby Cruickshank Sanctuary, a mix of scrub and pine flatwood habitats where regular controlled burns help maintain habitat for the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay. We were delighted to find a pair of jays right away, and enjoyed watching one hammer open an acorn right in front of us. Our final stop of the day was at a park along the shores of East Lake Tohopekaliga, where we enjoyed excellent views of several Snail Kites, some of them successfully hunting apple snails. Along with the kites, the wild calls of Limpkin and the bugling rattles of Sandhill Cranes made for a real Florida experience, and a great way to end the tour.