Trip to Florida, Part III

I certainly did not intend to take so long to post this final entry about my late-April “birding and nature” trip to Florida. I must apologize, but I was called away on a death in the family and am trying now to get back into the normal rhythm of things. So, now let’s conclude the Florida trip!

When I last wrote, my mother and brother and I had visited the Everglades in extreme southern Florida. The only place left to go from there was the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas. Unfortunately this was a short vacation and we could not spend nearly as much time as we would have liked exploring these areas, but we certainly enjoyed the time we had there.

The first “key” you arrive at after you’ve left the Florida mainland is Key Largo (of Humphrey Bogart fame). This is the largest, most populated and “touristy” of the keys with the exception of Key West. I usually try to avoid places with large numbers of people, but we did make a very worthwhile stop there at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which boasts a beautiful aquarium, a visitors center, a film about the Gulf Coast coral reefs and a gift shop among other things. I also wandered around the grounds and took a few pictures, including these two:

(Red-bellied Woodpecker arguing with himself. We get this species here in Virginia too)

(This Cassius Blue butterfly is about the size of my thumbnail)
The Florida Keys span some 100 miles between Key Largo and Key West; they are connected by causeways and 42 bridges, including one bridge that is seven miles long. I would have loved to spend some time exploring as we drove to Key West but the day we travelled it was far too windy to see any wildlife. But the drive was just beautiful, turquoise waters and various kinds of seabirds soaring over the highway as we drove along.

That evening we went to Fort Zachary Taylor at the extreme southwest tip of Key West. We walked through the picnic areas and along a small beach as evening turned to twilight, and I took a few pictures (below), including the one of a Magnificent Frigatebird at the top of this entry.

(In the eastern United States, the Hammock Skipper occurs only in Florida)

(I did not see large numbers of dragonflies on this trip: maybe it was too early in the summer. This one is a Wandering Glider, a species that also occurs in Virginia)

The next day was the grand finale of our trip, a boat trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of small islands about 70 miles west of Key West. A large military fortress, Fort Jefferson, which is now a national park, was constructed on the largest of these islands in the mid-19th century to protect the shipping channels in the area. Over the years the fort has served numerous functions, including that of a prison. Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned here after he was found guilty of aiding John Wilkes Booth by giving him medical attention following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (Photo above courtesy of http://www.evergladesassociation.org/)

Years ago I went to the Dry Tortugas by seaplane; this time I thought the ferry would be the best way to travel, gliding along the glassy Gulf waters and seeing sea turtles and birds along the way. Nice idea, but on this particular day the Gulf waters were angry and very choppy as the wind continued to blow. Most of us got seasick to some extent, and my poor brother in particular got violently ill; not the peaceful and beautiful ride I had envisioned at all.

Once we got to our destination and got off the boat, we all recovered and enjoyed some wonderful birding. The Dry Tortugas are well known as a birding “hotspot,” especially during spring migration. Songbirds that migrate from Mexico and fly over the Gulf waters are often exhausted by the time they reach North America and will drop onto the first piece of land they see to eat and to rest. The Dry Tortugas are a magnet for these birds, especially following turbulent weather, and birders who go there hope they have chosen a day with a large “fallout” of these migrants.

This female Hooded Warbler was easy to approach, probably because she was so exhausted. Don’t worry about her, though; she ate a few meals and perked up nicely.
This Yellow-billed Cuckoo stopped at Fort Jefferson on its migration to more northern areas; it could very possibly be breeding in Virginia this summer).

(In North America, the Gray Kingbird occurs only in the far southeastern states, mostly in Florida.

In addition to the hoped-for songbird fallouts, birders who visit the Dry Tortugas are also treated to spectacular views of some seabird species that are very rarely seen anywhere else in North America. Bush Key is the site of a large nesting colony of Sooty Terns every year; Hospital Key hosts a few Masked Boobies; Magnificent Frigatebirds soar overhead, and Brown Noddies are numerous.

(Sooty Tern colony, above, on Bush Key, viewed from Fort Jefferson).

 

 

(Brown Noddies are a sleek, beautiful member of the Tern family of birds. You are not likely to see them in anywhere in North America other than the Dry Tortugas)

The Magnificent Frigatebird (above) has an 85-inch wing span! It is a seabird that never lands on the water, and is known for its aerial piracy of other birds’ meals; it always feeds on the wing. The photo at the beginning of this blog entry is a female, which sports a white breast; the male, above, is all black. The male’s scarlet throat patch, which he inflates to impress the ladies in breeding season, is deflated in my photo, but below you can see what he looks like when he’s in his full spendor (photo courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.com/)

On the buoys near Fort Jefferson one often finds Brown Boobies (below), and we hit the jackpot that day as we headed back to Key West, finding at least a dozen on this one buoy alone.

And on that note, we’ll say good-bye to Florida, for the time being. It was wonderful to share the experience with my mom and my brother and I hope we can do it again very soon.

Trip to Florida – Part II, the Everglades

Have I got your attention now?

If you haven’t already read Part I of my Florida trip, please scroll down and have a look if you like. This entry will pick up at The Everglades, our next destination after Fort Myers. Yes, Virginia, there are alligators there!
The Everglades is known as the “River of Grass,” which describes it perfectly; it is actually a shallow, slow-moving, freshwater river nearly 50 miles wide! A lot of people are surprised when they go there to see that it is not a tropical jungle or a deep, dark swamp, but rather a flat, very flat wet grassland. The grasses are an efficient, natural filter for all the water that drains from Florida into the ocean. The highest elevation in the park, which encompasses 1,506,539 acres, is 6 feet! But a few inches of elevation in the Everglades makes a world of difference in the vegetation; hardwood hammocks grow in thick clusters wherever the elevation rises ever so slightly, and there exotic species of plants, trees and wildlife thrive.
Much of The Everglades is not accessible to people, or is accessible only by boat. This is a blessing, as human presence could only do more damage to the fragile ecosystem and its wildlife. It’s probably a blessing to the humans too, as the insects, reptiles and other residents of the park can become absolutely unbearable to people, especially as the weather warms up. But those who want to can experience a good sampling of the Everglades by walking the trails, boardwalks and side roads that the park has built. The easiest and most “people-friendly” of the trails is probably the Anhinga Trail.
The Anhinga, for which the trail is named, is actually a water bird that is very common in the Everglades. It’s reminiscent of a cormorant, but is much thinner and sleeker, with a long, thin dagger-like bill that it uses to pierce its prey. The picture above is of two fledglings near the nest that aren’t quite ready to fly. A few Anhingas do occur in Virginia, but nowhere near the numbers you’ll find farther south.
The bird below is a colorful member of the rail family of birds, known as a Purple Gallinule. I won’t even try to describe it as I couldn’t begin to do it justice; just look at the picture! This is a subtropical species that does not survive in more northern climates. It spends most of its time under heavy cover in thick, extensive wet areas where it is impossible to spot, but if you’re lucky, one will walk out into the open for a while to look for food and water.

Below is a Green Heron, a species I mentioned in a previous blog about herons and egrets. Green Herons occur in Virginia and are fairly common in the summer, but I never got a photo opportunity like this one before! The animals along the Anhinga Trail are wild, but are somewhat used to the presence of humans nearby and startle less often than you might experience at other places.

There are alligators everywhere along the Anhinga Trail, but I didn’t feel in the least threatened by them. As long as you stay on the designated paths and boardwalks, you are separated from them enough for comfort. Here are a couple of favorite photos:

I did walk another Everglades trail named the Snake Bight Trail, which took me straight into an extensive hardwood hammock. My mother and brother bowed out of this walk because the insects were pretty ferocious. I get ridiculously single-minded, though, about what I want to see, and before I knew it, I had left them for almost two hours. I wanted to go to the end of the trail, and I kept walking to the next bend in the trail, then the next and the next. I totally lost track of the time and got lots of bug bites, and I never did come to the end of the trail. But I saw some wonderful birds and especially butterflies:

This gorgeous creature is Florida’s “state butterfly,” the Zebra Heliconian. I must have snapped 50 pictures while I chased it around, trying to capture its image in flight. It is a member of the “longwing” family of butterflies, none of which occur in Virginia.

The Queen (above) looks a lot like a Monarch, and they are members of the same family, but once you study butterflies a little bit, you’ll see subtle differences. The Queen is a darker color of orange, with more brownish tones, and if you look at the underside of the forewing you’ll see there are no black veins like there are on the Monarch. Like Monarchs, they lay their eggs on plants that are in the milkweed family, which the caterpillars eat until they go into their chrysalis stage.
One of the butterfly species that I really wanted to see badly was the Mangrove Skipper, a subtropical species that only reaches North America in Florida. Its host plant is the Red Mangrove tree. My efforts in walking Snake Bight Trail were rewarded when I finally saw one of these beauties and was able to photograph it. Here are a couple of photos: I especially like the one where it’s looking straight into the camera!


At another part of the park, Paurotis Pond, we found another specialty of Southern Florida, the Wood Stork; in fact, we found a whole rookery of storks nesting and flying all around us, a real treat. Storks are bald like vultures and might be considered, well, unattractive to us, but when they are soaring in the air they are a truly beautiful spectacle.

I’ll conclude my Florida trip next time: part III will include our visit to the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas.

Trip to Florida, Part I

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.