I hate to miss any of the spring bird migration here in Virginia, but the last week of April I took some time off to go to southern Florida. My mother and my brother flew in from Utah to join me, and we set out to find new species of birds and, for me, butterflies, that we don’t see at our respective homes. I birded in southern Florida many years ago and was anxious to see again some of the species that occur only there, and get better photos of what came my way. I planned a rough itinerary from Tampa to Fort Myers to the Everglades to Key West, so we did a lot of driving but saw a bit of everything. Here I want to share some of my favorite photos with you (and if you’d like to see more, you can check out the Florida folder on my Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/birdingva/sets/72157626674047980.

Our first day we headed east from Tampa to do some birding in Central Florida, including Lake Kissimmee State Park and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. (A lot of places in central Florida bear the name Kissimmee, which translates to “heaven’s place.”) One of the first birds to greet us at the state park was the incredibly stunning and elegant Swallowtail Kite (photo above). A “Kite” is a type of raptor or hawk, smaller and more slender than, say, a Red-tailed Hawk. The term “Kite” alludes to the way this family of birds flies and hovers in the air when searching for food. The Swallowtail Kite breeds in Florida, although its breeding range does extend into some other areas of the southeastern United States; sometimes one migrates too far north and is spotted in Virginia, but that is an extremely rare occurrence. Most Swallowtail Kites winter in South America.
Here are a few other birds we saw in the scrublands of Central Florida:

This large gray crane with the red “cap” is a Sandhill Crane. Many people confuse herons with cranes because they are of similar size and structure, but in fact we only get two species of crane in North Amerca, the Sandhill Crane and the endangered Whooping Crane. Neither occur in Virginia, with the exception of a handful of stray Sandhills each year.

Everyone has heard of “meadowlarks” but few have really seen one up close. This beautiful bird with the bright yellow throat and breast is an Eastern Meadowlark. The species is common in Virginia and much of the eastern half of the United States. Yes, there is also a Western Meadowlark, which is very similar in appearance to its eastern cousin, and it inhabits the areas west of the Great Plains. Meadowlarks are renowned for their beautiful songs.

Here’s a bird that does not occur in Virginia. The Crested Caracara occurs only in Florida, Texas and Arizona in the United States, and southward into the tropical areas of Central and South America. Although it is actually a member of the falcon family of birds, it readily eats carrion like vultures do, and it is nicknamed the Mexican Eagle. It is a striking bird– just look at that beak!

From Central Florida we headed back to the Gulf Coast and Fort Myers, which is near Sanibel Island. Sanibel Island is known to birders all over the planet as the location of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, an amazing place to bird and one of the most reliable locations to see Roseate Spoonbills, a much sought-after species in North America. Roseate Spoonbills are showy, large wading birds with vivid pink plumage. It’s obvious from the photo (above) how they got the name “spoonbills.” They are resident breeders in South America, in coastal regions of the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast of the United States.
The Spoonbills usually fly into Ding Darling’s ponds in the evening to roost communally for the night, and sure enough, when we pulled in around 7:00 p.m. we were treated to the spectacle of 116 Spoonbills (yes, another birder counted them!) in the company of various other species of herons, egrets and shorebirds. Skies were clear, the sun was setting, and it was absolutely magnificent to witness so much beauty. At one point, the Spoonbills suddenly started walking towards the road where we were standing, and they started chattering intently. We realized what caused this behavior when a large alligator surfaced on the water; the birds were actually moving towards the alligator and scolding it, rather than turning tail and getting the heck out of there!
We also birded at Ding Darling and along the causeway between Fort Myers and Sanibel Island during the day, and found good numbers of birds. Many of the species we saw are also found here in Virginia, but the populations of some of these birds become greater the farther south you go into subtropical climates. Here’s a sampling:

Ruddy Turnstones (above) are quite common here in Virginia along the coast, and they are easy to see along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. You can see how the lower bill kind of curves up towards the tip; this is an adaptation that lets this species literally “turn stones” over as they look for food, and this is the reason for their name. They do not remain this bright ruddy color in the winter; their colors fade but their unique pattern remains the same.

This Black-bellied plover is also a species that we see regularly in Virginia. Like the Turnstone, its winter coloration is much duller than it is in the breeding season. The plovers are another family of shorebirds that you’ll almost always find near the water or wet fields.

Ding Darling has a lot of water and wetlands that are a magnet for egrets, herons, ibis and other waders in addition to the Roseate Spoonbills. This one is a Great Egret, a bird you’ll see in Virginia too.

Ospreys (above) are often mistaken for Bald Eagles because they are a large raptor with a lot of white on the head. If you look closer, though, you will see the field marks that help you identify it as an Osprey — the white underparts and the brown line through the eye are prominent. Ospreys are know as “fish hawks” because their diet consist solely of fish. These are the hawks that you see hovering over the water to search for food, then diving feet first to grasp their prey in their huge claws. When you see large nests made of sticks on power poles and other platforms near the water, they are likely Osprey nests.

After we birded the Fort Myers area, we headed south through Corkscrew Swamp, into the Everglades, and out to the Keys, where we took a boat trip 70 miles from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. In my next blog entry I will pick up the trip where this one leaves off, and introduce you to more of the Florida specialties.

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