Winter Florida Birding Workshop Jan 25—30, 2016

Posted by Louise Zemaitis


Louise Zemaitis

Louise Zemaitis is an artist and naturalist living in Cape May, New Jersey where she is a popular field trip leader teaching birding workshops as an Associate Naturalist wi...

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Winter in Central Florida is a season of incredible abundance. Migratory birds from near and far join permanent residents, creating a kaleidoscope of motion, color, and sound in a land rich in protected natural areas. The wildlife here is amazingly approachable, making this the perfect setting for a Birding Workshop, and a delightful escape from the cold north.

Sandhill Crane on nest

Sandhill Crane on nest— Photo: Louise Zemaitis


Our first morning in the field was spent just south of Orlando at Lake Tohopekaliga’s Lakefront Park. It was a beautiful, calm morning. As we walked along the lake’s berm, we found a Sandhill Crane peacefully sitting on its nest as a couple of Snail Kites and a Limpkin searched for apple snails in the shoreline vegetation. We were surprised to discover several more Snail Kites still at their roost nearby. Even more surprising was a remarkably confiding pair of River Otters. Unaffected by our presence, they went about their morning routine (which included eating a delicious Tilapia). Moving on, we visited Viera Wetlands, a water reclamation facility disguised as a paradise for wildlife. Driving along its impoundments, we studied a variety of waterfowl at close quarters. Curiously, many of our afternoon highlights involved feeding behaviors of non-waterfowl: a lovely female Painted Bunting daintily picked seeds in the grass along the dike; an adult Bald Eagle swooped in, talons stretched, and grabbed a fish from one of the main impoundments; a Belted Kingfisher brutally tenderized and successfully choked down a large fish; and a Loggerhead Shrike filleted an impaled insect. At the end of our birding day, we took a walk at nearby Cruickshank Sanctuary. The afternoon sun glowed upon the pine flatlands and scrub, providing an idyllic setting for our visit to Florida’s only endemic bird, the Florida Scrub-Jay. The jays lived up to their friendly reputations, greeting us as we approached and hopping around in the sandy path, digging up hidden acorns close to our feet.

Black Skimmers at Parrish Park

Black Skimmers at Parrish Park— Photo: Louise Zemaitis


In contrast to the first day’s beautiful weather, the next couple of days, though still warm, had a few passing showers. Our vehicle provided a perfect blind during the rainy interludes. At Merritt Island we enjoyed Parrish Park’s large flock of Black Skimmers, noting their colorful knife-like bills (ideally adapted for catching fish near the water’s surface) and explored Bio Lab Road, studying its shorebirds and waders. Driving a few miles of beach at Daytona Beach Shores, our many stops produced wonderful views of shorebirds, gulls, and terns. We talked about shorebird distribution using “Western” Willet as an example of a distinct population within a species, and the plight of the Red Knot due to its long migration and dependence on specific food sources. We identified gulls and terns focusing on size and structure. Each flock of birds presented us with a new opportunity to learn by comparison. Forster’s Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls looked petite compared to Royal Terns and Herring Gulls. But structural differences became more important when discussing the medium-sized Sandwich Terns and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The cloudy days were brightened with numerous special moments. We enjoyed seven Painted Buntings, males and females, at the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center feeders, and three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (along with some southern hospitality) at Matt and Lora Heyden’s feeders in Titusville. Our visit to Blue Spring State Park, where hot springs provide a winter haven for West Indian Manatees, was magical. We walked along a boardwalk among Live Oaks draped with Spanish Mosses and Resurrection Ferns, serenaded by Pileated Woodpeckers and an Eastern Phoebe, as a flock of songbirds, including Tufted Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and a Black-and-white Warbler, worked its way through the trees. It was so still that we could hear the manatees taking breaths as they periodically surfaced in the clear water.

West Indian Manatees at Blue Spring State Park

West Indian Manatees at Blue Spring State Park— Photo: Louise Zemaitis


The Florida sunshine returned for our final day in the field. Merritt Island’s Black Point Drive was teeming with activity. There were birds of many sizes (from diminutive Palm Warblers to robust American White Pelicans), shapes (from the Anhinga’s snake-like appearance with its dagger bill to the American Avocet’s stilted legs and recurved bill), and colors (from plain Dunlins to gaudy Roseate Spoonbills). The different foraging habits of the many waterbirds were well-illustrated. Teal dabbled, mergansers dove, and Reddish Egrets danced as Forster’s and Caspian terns searched the pools for prey from above. The highlight of the morning was a feeding frenzy of herons, dominated by Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills at an outfall close to the road. Numerous birders gathered to share the spectacle. After enjoying a delicious Rock Shrimp celebration at Dixie Crossroads, we completed our birding adventure with a visit to Blue Heron Wetlands. Many birds are drawn to the wonderful habitat created by this water reclamation facility. Songbirds, including several Eastern Phoebes and a couple of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, hunted for insects in the afternoon’s warmth along the dike, as waterbirds foraged in the pools, and Tree Swallows zipped over their heads. As we exited, our parting shot was of a handsome Red-shouldered Hawk, Florida sub-species of course, surveying his domain.